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If they hadn’t already started, many organizations around the world have this year been forced to drastically reconsider their working and, in particular, travel practices. As the opportunities for, and appeal of, international travel and in-person meetings have shrunk, individuals and institutions have found it necessary to get creative when it comes to devising alternative ways of going about their work.

Business travel, according to an SEI report released this month, is often a significant, if not the largest, part of a knowledge-based organization’s carbon footprint. While many organizations intended to reduce emissions from travel long before the COVID-19 pandemic brought international mobility to a near standstill, 2020 has seen the unexpected acceleration of some of the shifts which organizations had already begun to explore.

The Prepare for Landing report, based on interviews with employees of both SEI and the University of East Anglia (UEA), explores both the challenges associated with reducing business air travel and the associated emissions, and the ways in which these institutions and the people who work at them have approached this task. This research is part of the larger TR2AIL (Tracking, Reflecting and Reducing Air Travel) project, which aims to introduce a new “decision-support and reporting tool” by the end of the year, designed to help individuals in organizations to make more environmentally-conscious choices when it comes to business travel, and therefore help reduce air travel related emissions at an institutional level.

“The picture is more complicated than just a world engaging in excess air travel. While aviation might not account for a large share of global carbon emissions, it is disproportionately engaged in by high- and middle-income countries.”

The challenge

As the report notes, there are not, as of yet, any viable alternatives to fossil-based aviation fuels which could facilitate a transition to “cleaner” commercial air travel. This means that “the only way to significantly reduce aviation emissions remains, for now, not flying.” The picture, however, is more complicated than just a world engaging in excess air travel. While aviation might not account for a large share of global carbon emissions, it is disproportionately engaged in by high- and middle-income countries. By 2016, for instance, it was these countries that produced 90% of aviation emissions, with only 20% of the world’s population having ever flown anywhere.

It’s also clear that business travel makes up a significant portion of aviation emissions; one study found that in 2016, almost one third of travel undertaken by Stockholm residents fell into this category. Given this, the report seeks to identify how best to craft and implement policies in organisations that will target this source of emissions. To do so, and based on the responses of employees at both SEI and UEA along with  a review of published emissions reporting guidelines, it outlines four key areas of focus to be factored into the design and implementation of such guidelines.

Targets and indicators

The report provides guidance to organisations on how to go about setting targets, including descriptions of suitable target types and system boundaries.

According to respondents in the study, targets and progress indicators can be invaluable in defining organizations’ ambitions of emissions-reductions, for motivating employees and communicating progress towards achieving them. Interviewees noted, however, that targets could not always be one-size-fits-all; they also pointed out that differentiated targets might be needed within organizations spread across different geographic areas or made up of many separate teams.

Due to the diversity of alternative transport options available in different parts of the world, and because of the varied travel demands of different individuals or teams, respondents supported the idea of flexible internal strategies which neither let “frequent flyers” unwilling to adapt their behaviour off the hook, nor penalize other employees for whom some degree of travel is necessary.

“The report suggests that both internal and external communication not only fosters a culture of transparency but signals commitment by organizations to the goals they’ve set and encourages employees to adhere to them.”

Communication

Beyond this, communication of both targets and progress towards them was also deemed important by respondents. The report suggests that both internal and external communication not only fosters a culture of transparency but signals commitment by organizations to the goals they’ve set and encourages employees to adhere to them.

Emphasized in this, however, was the importance of data. The report recommends that in reporting strategies and results, details such as how data was collected, figures calculated, and measures selected are all crucial in increasing the reliability and trustworthiness of what the organization is communicating.

Enabling environment

Given that limiting travel emissions may be voluntary in many organizations, where this is the case the report points to the importance of an creating an enabling environment. Among the factors which go into creating such an environment is commitment from senior management, as they are the people who can spur structural change, make resources available and encourage shifts in organizational culture.

Interviewees also highlighted the measures that organizations could take to remove structural barriers preventing workers from making more climate-conscious travel choices. For instance, it was suggested that institutions could work with travel agencies to make the process of booking ground-based transport easier and explore ways to finance potential additional costs involved in opting for ground-based routes. Respondents also supported the idea of organizations investing in technology which would reduce the need for in-person meetings and increase possibilities for distanced collaboration.

Interested in joining the TR2AIL user test group?

Over the coming months, we will be developing the prototype TR2AIL tool. If you are interested in either joining the user test group or using the tool, you can register your interest here.

Data and decision support

Emissions-reductions strategies at both SEI and UEA currently rely heavily on individuals taking responsibility for cutting down on their own business travel, the report found, and consequently emphasized that data-gathering and decision support were therefore important factors. Several interviewees described setting their own targets for travel but also emphasized the importance of setting institutional targets and thresholds. Respondents also highlighted the usefulness of translating more technical measurements by which to track travel, such as CO2 emissions, into more readily understandable ones, such as the equivalent number of car journeys.

On this point, the report introduces a new tool, the TR2AIL system, “designed to support individuals in deciding whether and how to travel by calculating the emissions from a proposed flight, and showing statistics such as the individual’s total emissions during the year.” The system, due to be launched later this year, is also intended to serve as a platform to help individuals and organizations to calculate their emissions and track progress towards targets and for the reporting of travel data on an organizational level.

Beyond the pandemic

As the report notes, some organizations and individuals had begun to pay increased attention to, and attempt to reduce, their emissions well before the pandemic forced a break from travel of any kind. But the events of this year have created an opportunity for revaluating the practices which drove life before: “While government-mandated travel restrictions will be lifted in time, perhaps this experience will help to cement longer-term reductions in business travel.” The ramifications may even go further; in discussions with interviewees about the trade-offs being made when seeking to curb business travel, the report suggests that a shift towards emissions reductions “could be an opportunity for broader discussion on travel and working practices.”