Worried About Flying? Geneva Airport's CEO Is Listening

Worried About Flying? Geneva Airport's CEO Is Listening

With the world finally waking up to the reality of climate change, flying is increasingly coming in for a bad rap. Planes put a lot of carbon into the atmosphere. Greta Thunberg chose to sail across the Atlantic last month to attend the New York climate bash because she wanted to avoid the emissions from flying. Fair enough.

What about the rest of us? In a globalised economy that depends heavily on air travel, can we cut flying from our menu? Pretty much none of us will ever be offered a free boat ride across the Atlantic. What do we do?

In recent years, I’ve cut my own flying footprint significantly. Until 2016 it was pretty high, bolstered by my role as The Forest Trust (TFT) CEO. We had offices in 16 countries, projects in more than 40 and the teams and activities needed visiting. Visit them I did to the tune of more than 100 flights per year, many of them long haul. I argued (to myself) that TFT’s work to protect forests justified the flying. With our work’s success with palm oil and other companies, the total net area of forest that was set aside and protected was significant. That forest stores a lot of carbon. Did that justify the flights?

Some would argue yes, some no. Bottom line, I spent a lot of time passing through Geneva Airport (GVA).

Just last week I had the pleasure of meeting the airport’s CEO, André Schneider. In early 2018, I’d raised an eyebrow when GVA announced it was carbon neutral. It had offset all the carbon emissions from its 2016 operations – some 10,000t - and had thus become one the world’s few airports able to make the neutrality claim. That’s good, a start, but I’m sceptical about offsetting. Isn’t it just a permission slip to keep polluting? I knew that pretty much none of the airlines that use GVA were doing anything to reduce let alone offset the millions of tons of CO2 they were pumping into the atmosphere every year. GVA’s efforts seemed inconsequential against these emissions, generated in part by GVA’s role as an industry platform. And it did nothing to address the carbon it had emitted over its long history. I found myself scratching my head at the carbon neutrality claim. Back then I sensed greenwashing.

Now I don’t.

André is a man on a mission. He joined GVA in 2016, having established himself as a sustainability leader first at the World Economic Forum and then at EPFL. His friends and professional colleagues did their own head scratching, “What are you doing André?” they wondered. How could someone so focused on sustainability work for an airport?

“I wanted the challenge” André mused. “If there’s one industry that needs reforming, it’s the aviation industry. Best I jump in and see what I can do rather than stand on the outside and criticise.”

I like his thinking. I support this notion of taking great leaps into the unknown, especially to grapple with really wicked problems. The aviation industry and its carbon emissions are wicked problems indeed.

“Unless we’re going to walk away from the globalised economy – and I don’t think we can – there’s always going to be flying,” André noted. “OK, taking loads of trips for Caribbean vacations each year probably needs looking at, but flying underpins so much of the global economy, not to mention local and regional economies. It’s just not going to go away.”

GVA supports 33,000 regional jobs and generates $4 billion in regional revenue. That’s important. But GVA needn’t stop at carbon offsetting in its efforts to address its share of the aviation industry’s environmental and social challenges.

“Carbon emissions and noise pollution are the two big issues we’re confronting here,” André noted and then he rolled off activity after activity, conversation after conversation he was having on a truly wide range of issues. There’s a project to cover the buildings with solar panels to generate the airport’s electricity needs. You can read more in the airport’s 2018 Sustainability Report but Andre’s looking at fuels, climate action, responsible consumption, clean water and sanitation, gender equality and women’s empowerment, life on land, affordable clean energy, decent work and economic growth, the airport’s role in building sustainable cities and communities, innovation, industries and infrastructure – including an incredibly complex, future looking project to replace the terminal building - and overall good health and well-being.

He’s investigating punitive fees for airlines that can’t get their planes out before 22:00, after which local residents really get upset about noise. He’s using the airport’s fee structures to incentivise airlines to use the most modern, fuel efficient and least noisy planes. He’s looking at biofuels. I can’t list everything we discussed, there was so much, but I was quietly impressed. I had no sense of greenwashing, just a very strong focus on listening to stakeholders and embracing challenges. André doesn’t profess to have all the solutions but he knows that the only way to find them is to engage with everyone.

That’s rare in a business leader, from my experience at least.

I was grateful to meet André. For sure concerns about flying remain but I have concerns about every industry that has big carbon emissions. I have concerns about my own footprint and my frequent passage to, through and home again from GVA is part of that. Seeing people taking action on the issues in a bold, determined way is inspiring. That doesn’t mean everything will be solved tomorrow. GVA is only one airport and like all wicked problems, actually there is no solution, there are only ways to make things better.

André is working on that. That feels right. Next time I fly, I’ll at least feel my airport manager is on it.

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