The coronavirus pandemic forced a temporary halt in business travel and many in-person meetings. But before the pandemic, “demand for air travel had been growing at a rate that outpaced decarbonization efforts. Individuals and organizations were struggling to reduce air travel in an effort to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C above preindustrial levels,” notes the World Resources Institute (WRI) working paper, “Business Air Travel and Climate: Changing Behaviors Before, During, and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.”
Remote work’s impact
In the past couple of years, companies have gotten used to less business travel, more remote work, and more virtual meetings. However, at some companies, those practices are returning to their pre-pandemic “normal”—for example, Google, Microsoft, and Apple have been bringing people back into the office. The return to the office has caused some blowback. At Apple, employees have written letters opposing the decision.
But other companies are taking this disruption as an opportunity to rethink how they work. For example, Airbnb has shifted to a “live and work anywhere” model. The company now allows employees to work from home or the office or to move anywhere within their country without a change in compensation.
The transition to a fully remote workforce reduces costs and a company’s carbon footprint by circumventing rent, the need to keep facilities running, and eliminating commutes. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that a typical U.S. employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time commuter per year.
But what about business travel and sustainability?
Business travel is often the single largest line item on both an individual’s and company’s carbon balance sheet. In the U.S., transportation is responsible for 27% of greenhouse gas emissions.
If people can do their jobs well and be productive without being in the office, does that mean they can also do their jobs well and be productive without business travel? It might. Public perception of business travel has changed, according to the WRI working paper. WRI surveyed its staff of 1,400+ before the pandemic and in July 2020. It found that more than 60% said virtual meetings are more feasible and effective than they previously thought. More than 70% of the most frequent travelers said so.
WRI also looked at several other organizations in another paper, “Business Travel GHG Emissions Analysis.” “Overall, from this collective group of about eight nonprofit organizations with a global presence, we’re seeing that the pandemic […] has really changed in a significant way how people think about meeting and conducting business, building relationships, doing the work that they do—whether it’s about reducing commute or air travel,” said WRI Global Sustainability Initiative Lead Shengyin Xu, who is a coauthor of both working papers.
While both WRI papers focused on nonprofit organizations, they point out some industry-agnostic concerns that employees raised. Many respondents said that certain types of business travel are easier to replace with virtual alternatives. Project management, speaking engagements, and conference participation can be done virtually, they said, but activities like building relationships and collecting data are harder to do remotely.
The paper suggests the strategic reduction of business travel in a way that also considers equity. “Organizations might explicitly set up a progressive travel reduction effort by encouraging ambitious but strategic reductions for frequent travelers whose travel can be substituted (either with fewer trips or with virtual replacements) and smaller reductions for staff who travel infrequently, like junior staff and staff from less resourced programs or other groups who have not had the opportunity to benefit from the networking opportunities that can come with travel.”
Before the pandemic, business travel spending accounted for 26% of total travel spending, compared to 14% at the end of 2021, according to the U.S. Travel Association. But in the past several months, business travel has started to ramp back up. “We’re also seeing, using global trend data, this increase in air travel internationally, and we’re almost getting to the level of pre-pandemic travel in a quiet way. So what I think we’re seeing is the subtle return to traveling,” Xu said.
That return may be in flux, though. In May, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics announced that in March, the cost of aviation fuel hit an 8-year high. Besides the pandemic, newfound concerns over rising fuel costs and inflation are fiscal justifications for reducing business travel.
Although many companies have formal sustainability programs, few have programs that specify anything about business travel. A report by the Global Business Travel Association found that only a third of the companies it surveyed in 2021 has a sustainability program that includes business travel.
But for innovative companies, the business travel pause spurred by the coronavirus pandemic created the opportunity to re-evaluate and rethink their travel policies, especially how travel impacts climate change and workplace culture and benefits. Several large companies, including Salesforce, HSBC, and Deloitte, have announced plans to reduce corporate travel emissions. Salesforce set a goal of maintaining its employee business travel emissions intensity below 50% of its FY20 baseline.
Last year, as part of its goals to curb global warming in line with its commitment to the Science-Based Targets Initiative (SBTi), Bain & Company announced an emissions reduction target of 35% per employee over the next five years. “Like most businesses, the pandemic gave us a chance to step back and reimagine the ways we’ve historically worked,” said Bain partner Torsten Lichtenau in a statement. “One area where we’ve decided to go above and beyond is optimizing carbon emissions associated with travel. The pandemic proved there are times when we can still be extraordinarily effective with our clients by leveraging technology to collaborate in a hybrid work environment.”
Reducing business travel emissions in practice
Of course, replacing business travel with virtual meetings will be better for the environment—and a business’s bottom line—but it’s not always practical. That’s why new policies should include justification criteria for necessary business travel: Is an in-person meeting business-critical? What are you getting done in person that a virtual meeting couldn’t otherwise accomplish? Have you explored every possible avenue first?
When travel is necessary, certain choices can reduce its carbon footprint, like choosing direct flights over indirect ones and choosing economy class instead of business class. According to one estimate, a first-class ticket on a long-haul flight emits about four times as much as an economy ticket, in part because first-class seats take up more space and weight on the plane.
When implementing a new policy, social norms are just as important. For example, organizations should use behavioral change campaigns around travel reduction and consider messaging “to make it a little bit more of a sense of joining a group of your colleagues and peers in this reduction,” Xu said.
The Business Air Travel and Climate paper notes: “It can be easier to change behaviors that have noted pain points and relatively effective and available alternatives.”
And let’s not forget about lifestyle changes. Less business travel can be seen as an incentive for folks who regularly have to spend time away from their families. Survey respondents said they expect fewer business trips to have positive effects on “life-work balance,” quantity of work, and job satisfaction.
Xu added that when shifting from in-person meetings to virtual ones, “Now is the time, essentially, to make those virtual tools easier, to start a campaign that relies on social norming and leadership sponsorship, and gets staff motivated to rethink travel before they start,” Xu said. “There’s a huge opportunity to say we can be more strategic about returning to travel.”
There are also other opportunities for more sustainable business travel programs. They include sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)—although its supply is limited—and land-based modes like high-speed rail and public transport for shorter trips. The less carbon-intensive modes of transportation are better, but they still have associated emissions. And while many companies—and airlines—use carbon offsets to offset travel emissions, the most environmentally impactful strategy remains not to travel at all.
Many companies’ typical way of doing business has been upended, and that’s a positive for the environment. And for those that have taken this time of uncertainty to find new ways of working more sustainably, it will be a positive for their bottom line, too.