Public authorities that manage or finance infrastructure of any kind are increasingly aware of their environmental impacts and the risks they face due to climate change. But we must move faster and be bolder to confront the climate crisis.
Planning ahead and fortifying critical infrastructure systems can help authorities withstand extreme weather caused by climate change, as well as create jobs, enhance social equity and drive economic development in their regions.
At CDP, we are helping public authorities to be increasingly transparent about vital environmental data and advance sustainable action. We spoke with the Philadelphia Department of Aviation, a department of the City of Philadelphia government, recently about their environmental journey and environmental disclosure.
Jessica Noon, Sustainability Manager, Philadelphia Department of Aviation
Q: What led your organization to value environmental sustainability?
A: Our leadership is committed to sustainability since airports have such a big environmental impact. We’ve had a robust sustainability program since 2010. We want to be a leader in this area.
Q: What was the CDP disclosure process like for you?
We have been doing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions inventories for 13 years. We first disclosed because we were asked to do so by American Airlines, which requested that we calculate carbon emissions for their operations at our airport. The process has been really interesting: in our disclosure we answered questions about our emissions impact – but also, we came away with a lot of ideas on how to better integrate climate risk decisions into our larger organizational strategy.
Q: What are the major environmental risks that the Philadelphia Airport has identified as potentially most disruptive to your business?
A: We’re located on the Delaware River, so we’re at risk from sea level rise, stronger storms and tidal surge flooding. As the sea level rises and storms become stronger, flooding could potentially lead to equipment failures or having to shut down portions of our airfield in extreme conditions. The fossil fuel industry is in flux, so there’s an additional financial risk in continuing to use natural gas and petroleum fuels, as we can be subject to high rate increases as the economy changes.
Q: How are you addressing those risks?
A: We have developed a climate adaptation and resilience plan in 2023. We looked at climate-related risks to our assets and infrastructure, developed strategies to mitigate climate change risks and now we’re implementing the strategies we’ve identified. This includes a feasibility study to improve flood mitigation infrastructure on our airfield. As a baseline for any projects we undertake, we want to minimize potential impacts to the floodplain. Also, we’re improving our energy efficiency with LED lighting and optimizing HVAC systems and electrifying our vehicle fleet. Finally, implementing sustainable aviation fuel is a big effort that’s going to take time, but we need to do it industry-wide to move toward low-carbon air travel.
Clean energy shuttle for Philadelphia Airport employees and passengers. Converted in 2018.
Q: Has your organization identified any opportunities related to the green transition?
A: Solar energy and vehicle electrification are two viable opportunities and could mean longer term savings around energy rates. Philadelphia’s own Benjamin Franklin said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In that spirit, we’re saving money in the long run by investing in climate resilience upfront, avoiding expensive future damages from flooding, for example.
Q: Has your organization invested in any of these opportunities?
A: We’re part of an agreement within our region that in the event of temporary extreme demands upon the regional energy grid due to weather, we are committed to reducing our energy usage. Each year, we look at our energy use during the five coldest days of the winter season when this energy use reduction was triggered and compare that to how much energy we used on those high-demand days in past years. Interestingly, last winter, those coldest days were in December, and we used two megawatts less than in those days in the past, which indicates that we are making significant strides in energy efficiency.
Q: How do your sustainability projects benefit the public?
A: We are working with Philadelphia’s chief resiliency officer, the Office of Sustainability and the flood risk management task force on a plan for climate change and flooding mitigation in Lower South Philadelphia and along the Delaware River that benefits Philadelphia as a whole
Q: How have your sustainability projects impacted your organization from a financial perspective?
A: Our leadership values sustainability and when we look at capital projects, we carefully consider energy use and the lifespan of our infrastructure – considerations that are money-saving in the long run. We’re anticipating a future where energy costs will be higher. Forecasting and planning for sustainability benefit us environmentally and financially.
Q: Why do you encourage public authorities to disclose through and work with CDP?
A: The process of identifying and calculating GHG emissions is really important and advances any organization’s awareness of their impact so they can start reducing it. Our CDP participation was helpful because it gave us ideas for how we can enhance our strategy, set goals and track carbon emissions over time to reduce our environmental impact.
Q: What would you say to other public authorities that may be concerned about the effort needed to disclose and take environmental action?
A: There is effort involved, but it’s mostly upfront – if you can get the data together and organized in the right way, you can repeat that on an annual basis. Carbon neutrality is going to be more important in the future and it’s good to be prepared. Moreover, it’s a great way to take credit for what you’re doing right. We’re all starting from a challenging place and everyone is learning and growing – so disclosure is a way to see where and how we all are advancing on that journey.