In an age of overwhelming access to information, the warnings of the scientific community about the potentially devastating consequences of human-induced climate change have entered the mainstream and made the topic an unavoidable priority for world and business leaders alike.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), world-wide emissions must reach net-zero by 2050 in order to keep global warming under 1.5°C — meaning policymakers and corporate citizens have a duty to explore tangible means of urgently reducing their carbon footprints.
Specifically, awareness of the scale and urgency of climate change has brought a renewed focus on the environmental impact of the transportation sector, which emits 14% of global carbon emissions and is one of the biggest producers of carbon emissions.
The time has come to rethink our travel habits. This is one of the key ways in which carbon emissions can be seriously reduced, especially as air travel is one of the fastest growing contributors to climate change. For example, an independent analysis conducted for Eurostar found that passengers could cut their CO2 emissions by 90% when traveling from London to Paris if they choose train over air.
With this in mind, French lawmakers recently moved towards banning short-haul domestic flights where train alternatives exist for journeys under two-and-a-half hours in an effort to reduce carbon emissions despite industry losses from the global pandemic. More regulations like these are expected to become the norm in the face of the climate crisis.
Why is it relevant for companies to rethink their travel habits?
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, business travel around the globe has come to a halt with the end still far off. This new normal for business travel requires a sharp pivot from in-person meetings and events with clients and colleagues to virtual platforms.
As the pandemic continues, business travel is likely to return at an even slower pace than leisure and local travel, and the possibility for new ways of working, such as opting for train travel, video-conferencing, collaboration via online tools like Slack and Teams are being explored and ultimately shifting work-travel habits.
Furthermore, if and when travel becomes possible, it is predicted to do so in phases, subject to geographic considerations such as infection numbers and rates, fast-changing policies and restrictions, mandatory quarantines, and higher costs associated with increased safety and cleaning protocols. This will further call into question the necessity of work travel.
Beyond the health concerns brought about by the pandemic, a significantly growing trend of informed consumers increasingly aware of social and environmental impacts is on the rise. These consumers seek to align themselves with companies that are genuinely engaged in addressing such concerns.
Therefore, critically addressing the environmental footprint of the business world in terms of work travel is a way to not only avoid fines but may also be used as a tool to simultaneously enhance corporate brand value, credibility, and reputation.
How can these new ways of working be leveraged into sustainable travel policy?
The unavoidable reality is that the most effective way to minimise travel-related carbon emissions is by avoiding traveling altogether. However, for many industries, work-travel is necessary, mainly in terms of relationship-building and networking. Thus travel policy should instead focus on the means and frequency of transportation methods.
Similarly to corporate actors, several European universities have started implementing such travel policies to better account for the impact of their work-related activities, as aviation in the higher-education context is responsible for a greater share of total emissions in comparison to the national average.
In that vein, one of the major initiatives of the Green Office at ESCP’s Berlin campus is to streamline work-related travel by staff members and other associates. The team has dedicated its time to organising and digitising all work travel related information as well as calculating exactly how many tons of carbon emissions the Berlin campus is responsible for.
A great place to start in designing an effective travel policy is to measure employee sentiment and willingness to adopt more sustainable travel options. This paves the way for determining points of friction or areas where internal communication is needed.
In our experience at the Green Office, we conducted a survey which found that over 50% of the participants from various staff departmentsindicated that it is very important for ESCP to set clear sustainable travel policy guidelines for staff/ professors, and 45% indicated that they would be willing to travel up to 6 hours on the train to avoid air travel. This information has helped us spark a conversation within the school and pioneer the first travel policy.
The next step is to build out your travel policy. We’ve highlighted here some of the most common measures:
Flight restrictions: Opting for ground travel
In some cases, it just doesn’t make sense to fly, and alternatives to flying are readily available. For instance, the Green Office found that three of the five most frequent air travel routes for the Berlin campus in 2019 were within Germany, and the amount of CO2 that could have been saved by using the train alternative was 127,44 tonnes in 2018 and 110,59 in 2019. For perspective, 127t of CO2 emitted equals the electricity needed in one year to power 20 standard houses, according to the EPA.
Changing mindsets: Developing best practices to guide employees towards more sustainable transport methods
For unavoidable flights, on the other hand, it is critical to establish guidelines that can be followed by all in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions generated by business trips. This can include prioritising direct flights and airlines with better corporate social responsibility profiles, investing in compensation or ecological credit schemes, and developing carbon budgets or quotas per department. In all cases, it is important to involve employees in the decision-making process to pave the way for bottom-up change.
Focus on incentives: Make it more accessible to act sustainably
Though restrictions may initially seem most effective, the Green Office has found through a series of interviews across departments that staff are more likely to respond to incentives when it comes to changing travel habits. This can take the form of an incentive program to reward carbon-conscious staff, such as a point system allotted depending on means of transport, offering first-class train tickets and business accounts for regular train users, and counting travel time as work time.
Increased communication: Raising awareness through improving transparency
This phase requires continuous and transparent monitoring and reporting of these travel-habits, which can be presented as department-specific monthly reports that track and detail work-travel habits, and will hopefully fuel the discussion across the company. This can be overseen by one travel policy representative per department or through the creation of sustainable travel policy teams to supervise such efforts. These reports should highlight percentage changes per reporting period, and the results can be gamified to spark internal competition.
Extra steps: Moving beyond awareness raising
Apart from aviation-related initiatives, incentives should be created for public transportation, electric vehicles, and bike-use on and off campus. This can be supported by providing public transportation passes, parking for electric vehicles, reducing in-person days on campus, and improving bike racks and accessibility to bikes.
With a long road to recovery ahead, the Covid-19 pandemic has presented the opportunity for companies to reconsider their business travel habits and develop sustainable travel policy guidelines. The time to drive awareness within firms and among employees regarding new ways of working has never been more relevant and attainable, yielding tremendous opportunities for companies to adopt and empower environmentally-conscious travel while also gaining a competitive advantage.