For the sake of the planet, it’s time to rethink business travel


p 4 its time to reassess the role of business travel in global warming

This story is an element of The Street Forward, a sequence that examines the future of travel and the way we’ll expertise the world after the pandemic.

In 2019, Salesforce workers traveled a lot for work that they generated a mixed 146,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. That’s the similar quantity emitted by 17,500 houses over the course of a complete yr; it could take greater than 178,000 acres of forest 12 months to sequester that carbon dioxide. At the same time as Salesforce labored to scale back its total carbon footprint, its business travel emissions have been quickly rising—up practically 18% from 2017. 

In 2020, every thing modified: The corporate’s whole business travel emissions dropped 86% to simply 20,000 metric tons, in accordance to its fiscal yr 2021 stakeholder impact report. What had modified, of course, was the sudden halting of all travel due to COVID-19. (Salesforce’s 2021 fiscal yr covers February 2020 to January 2021.) 


“Just a few years in the past, we dedicated that we might offset all business travel and worker commuting emissions, pre-pandemic,” says Patrick Flynn, Salesforce head of sustainability. Offsets aren’t sufficient, he acknowledges—the world wants to drastically reduce emissions, not watch for years for timber to develop and finally sequester carbon from our environment—however attempting to curb business-travel emissions had lengthy been a problem. “Then the pandemic occurred, and travel went to zero, and our business carried on.” 

Salesforce wasn’t alone. Firms throughout the spectrum found an surprising profit of grounding their workers throughout the pandemic: a decreasing of carbon emissions from business travel. Although air travel, and particularly business travel, represents 2% of international greenhouse fuel emissions, it accounts for an outsized portion of a person’s—and business’s—carbon footprint. One round-trip ticket from London to New York Metropolis generates extra emissions than what the common particular person in 56 international locations produces in a complete yr. And short-haul flights can produce extra emissions per passenger than longer ones.

The COVID-19-induced pause on travel, which prompted an estimated 75% drop in aviation emissions at the peak of lockdowns in 2020, has shone a highlight on the position that business travel performs in local weather change. And it’s compelled firms and particular person vacationers alike to reckon extra immediately with the affect that their gross sales journeys and team-building jaunts have on the well being of the planet.

The problem now—as tens of millions get vaccinated and travel restrictions ease—is to be certain that a return to “business as common” doesn’t include a surge in emissions and skyrocketing firm carbon footprints. Even with the world shuttered and a file drop in international emissions, we nonetheless added 39 gigatonnes of CO2 from all human actions to our environment final yr.

Although business travel is anticipated to bounce again extra slowly than leisure journeys, trade specialists are certain it’s going to return, and that the age of Zoom gained’t fully substitute in-person conferences and worldwide conferences. However the extremes of 2020 served as a reset second for a lot of firms, forcing them to reassess how and why they travel, and what their business journeys will appear to be in the future.

Simply how unhealthy is business travel? 

“Business travel” is nearly synonymous with airline travel: jet setting for in-person conferences, sitting in the entrance of the airplane, racking up miles and taking benefit of airport lounges. In the grand scheme of international emissions, it may be simple to overlook the position of airline travel. However aviation’s carbon footprint is rising rapidly. A 2019 study by the Worldwide Council on Clear Transportation discovered that airline emissions had elevated by 32% from 2013 to 2018—70% quicker than the UN had projected it could develop; by 2050, aviation emissions may account for 1 / 4 of the international carbon finances that we’ll want to embrace so as to restrict international warming to 1.5ºC.


One % of the world’s inhabitants accounts for 50% of international aviation emissions.

A choose group of individuals are chargeable for most of these travel emissions: In 2018, solely 11% of individuals round the world took a flight in any respect, and simply 4% (at most) flew overseas, in accordance to a study helmed by Stefan Gössling, a sustainable tourism researcher and a professor at Sweden’s Linnaeus College Faculty of Business and Economics. One % of the world’s inhabitants—a bunch that Gössling calls “tremendous frequent flyers”—accounts for 50% of international aviation emissions. 

Individuals who travel for work have a tendency to have bigger carbon footprints—and never simply because they fly extra regularly. Research have discovered that space-hogging business-class seats are chargeable for up to 5 occasions as many CO2 emissions as these in economic system. “It’s not simply the quantity of flights individuals have been taking, it’s additionally the class they’re flying that’s vital for figuring out emissions,” Gössling says. “So if business travel goes down, it could positively have a major affect for 2 causes: fewer individuals flying in the premium lessons, and likewise the quantity of flights coming down.”

However regardless of the proof that business travel accounts for a disproportionate quantity of airline emissions, there’s been a way that this type of travel is someway exempt. “I used to name it the final socially acceptable kind of air pollution,” says Dan Rutherford, who directs the delivery and aviation program at the nonprofit Worldwide Council on Clear Transportation. “Folks would by no means brag about shopping for an enormous SUV, however they brag about flying 100,000, 200,000 miles a yr.” He estimates that flying for work makes up about 75% of his private carbon footprint. “Should you’re a significant consulting firm like Deloitte, that’s true for many of your workers,” he says.

“Folks would by no means brag about shopping for an enormous SUV, however they brag about flying 100,000, 200,000 miles a yr.”

However local weather activists have been placing this section of carbon emissions in the highlight—Greta Thunberg made a number of headlines when she selected to sail relatively than fly to the 2019 United Nations Local weather summit. And, after a yr with out business travel, firms are extra boldly acknowledging the toll that company travel takes on the setting. They’re utilizing the pandemic to announce new promises to scale back (and offset) business travel emissions as a means to attain their sustainability objectives. 

In January, consulting agency EY set a purpose to reduce business travel emissions 35% by fiscal yr 2025, in contrast to 2019 ranges; in February, Deloitte introduced it could reduce business travel emissions per worker in half by 2030; and in April, Salesforce promised to scale back business travel carbon emission depth by 50% relative to pre-pandemic ranges efficient instantly. 

Business travel will come again—however it is going to be completely different 

The pandemic isn’t the first disaster the travel sector has confronted. After 9/11, travel dipped, however got here again stronger than ever; the similar occurred after the 2008 monetary disaster. Although the length and magnitude of the COVID-19 disaster are unprecedented, Bryan Terry, international airways chief at Deloitte anticipates an identical development for travel—even company travel. “We predict business travel will rebound,” he says. “However it’s going to come again otherwise, and it’ll come again slower.”

That sluggish tempo isn’t as a result of of sustainability issues, Terry says. Firms could rethink sending somebody overseas for a half day assembly in London as a result of they will lower your expenses by doing it just about. However Evan Konwiser, government vice chairman of product and technique for American Specific International Business Travel (GBT), which oversees company travel reserving for firms of all sizes, doesn’t see conferences, inside conferences, and even buyer conferences staying fully digital. There have at all times been prices related to business travel, not simply monetary but additionally in phrases of productiveness (hey, jet lag). If your organization was keen to greenlight travel for conferences, conferences, and so forth in 2019, the “overwhelming majority” of these actions, he says, will nonetheless be value a business journey in 2022. On this state of affairs, firms trying to decrease their carbon footprints gained’t merely scale back or cease business travel. They’ll give attention to decreasing travel-related emissions—a distinction that deserves the similar scrutiny as broad ‘internet zero’ objectives.


To Rutherford, the quickest and best factor an organization can do to reduce its business-travel emissions (moreover maintaining workers at residence) is to go for economic system over business class. There’s been so much of resistance to that concept over the years, he acknowledges. Individuals who travel for work like the standing that accompanies the entrance of the airplane, and being requested to squeeze into coach for a transatlantic flight simply to attend one assembly is unlikely to make somebody look fondly on their employer. 

There are different methods to convey down emissions. Slightly than buying the most economical flight, firms could also be extra keen to pay a “inexperienced premium,” shopping for a ticket for a extra environment friendly, direct flight over a less expensive, oblique one, or deliberately selecting operators that fly newer, extra fuel-efficient plane. In June 2020, American Specific GBT debuted a function in its travel administration software program that lets customers filter potential journeys by their whole emissions. There’s not but a lot knowledge on what number of firms will go for the most sustainable journey over the most reasonably priced one, however Nora Lovell Marchant, American Specific GBT’s VP of sustainability, thinks it’s going to occur. In spite of everything, firms have already proven that they’re keen to pay for carbon offsets, one other sort of inexperienced premium.   

Altering the mode of travel may additionally curb emissions. Switching from air to rail may imply a 90% discount in emissions for that journey, Lovell Marchant says—although she acknowledges that’s simpler to do in the European Union than the U.S. (France is one of a number of European international locations to just lately ban quick flights that may be changed by a prepare journey, although Rutherford factors on the market’s a caveat for connecting flights related to long-haul journeys.) 

And at last, there’s Sustainable Aviation Fuels, or SAFs, new gas improvements that additionally include an enormous premium. Proper now, SAFs aren’t an answer to curbing emissions as a result of utilization is so low; lower than 0.5% of jet fuels used in the present day are SAFs, Rutherford says, and so they can value as a lot as 4 occasions a typical gas. However firms and airways are starting to work collectively to convey down the value and ramp up use. In October 2020, Microsoft and Alaska Airways partnered on a SAF deal that concerned the tech large shopping for SAF credit from a third-party firm, which might then provide sustainable fuels to Alaska. Simply final month, Microsoft joined with Boeing, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, JPMorgan Chase, Netflix, and Salesforce to launch the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance to spur SAF manufacturing and know-how improvements so these fuels can scale.

The pandemic pulled again the curtain on how a lot of business travel is admittedly needed.

With SAFs comes one large concern: Firms and airways may “double rely” emissions financial savings. “While you see United or American make an announcement saying ‘we’re going to have a partnership with this company and use it to introduce SAFs,’ that’s nice,” Rutherford says. “However in accordance to the legal guidelines of accounting emissions, that really means the airline’s greenhouse fuel emissions are unchanged. They’ve offered the discount to a third-party.” The difficulty comes if each events strive to declare the discount. Konwiser acknowledges that’s a priority and says American Specific GBT is engaged on options.

SAFs may symbolize a breakthrough answer for future emissions. However the reality stays: We’d like to make drastic modifications proper now. “You’re by no means going to resolve the emissions subject with out modifications in the system. Know-how isn’t going to reduce it,” says Gössling, the sustainable tourism researcher. “We now have to actually reduce down on particular person travel and we’ve got to begin at the prime,” with that 1% of fliers who trigger half of all aviation emissions. “It has to begin with the very frequent flyers, it has to begin with the premium lessons, and solely then will we stand an opportunity to handle this by way of know-how.”

To Gössling, the pandemic pulled again the curtain on how a lot of business travel is admittedly needed. In the before-times, “Folks would inform their bosses, ‘Oh I’ve received to fly once more as a result of in any other case I’m probably not certain we’ll get the deal.’ At the finish of the day, perhaps that was probably not true,” he says.

The world is opening up once more and the attraction of business travel is coming again—however the rational arguments towards it nonetheless exist. It’s simply not our personal well being that’s in danger with each work journey, however our planet’s.