What Does Business Travel Cost the Environment?

Written by Ellen West on 21 Jan 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a significant question on the role of business travel.

Business travel has been an essential part of any corporate business model. It is very valuable, supporting business sales and growth. However, it also has a significant environmental cost. What’s more, the pandemic has shown that growth is possible without it.

With little travel taking place in current times, many organisations have stopped to review their policies in relation to wider environmental goals and global pressure. There is an opportunity for well-informed travel policy changes that could dramatically reduce any organisation’s carbon footprint.

So then comes the question: Just how much carbon is business travel responsible for? And what can you do differently to reduce your impact? In this insight, we’d like to answer these questions by sharing some of our market-leading calculations.

Traveller profile

Let’s meet a business traveller, Jane. Jane is a Sales Executive. She is a frequent flier, clocking in 14 trips a year, and accounts for a significant amount of sales deals won. In the industry, we might call her a ‘Road Warrior’. Her manager considers her and her travel indispensable to the growth of the business. Let’s have a look at the details:

Jane makes 2 transatlantic flights a year, each one 2 days in duration. For both trips, she flies business class from London Heathrow to John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York. Each excursion involves:

  • Return flights to JFK airport
  • A taxi from and to the airport in New York
  • 2 nights in a hotel
  • A collection of taxi trips to get to and from her meetings.

She also makes 1 regular monthly trip to Europe. She flies business class from London to Berlin for a 1-night stay. Each one of these involves:

  • Return flights to Berlin Brandenburg airport
  • A taxi from and to the airport
  • 1 night in a hotel
  • A collection of taxi trips to get to and from her meetings.

The hidden environmental cost of Jane’s travel

All in, Jane’s yearly business travel carbon emissions total 16.34 tonnes CO2e. 96.7% of this is directly a result of her business class flying. This is equivalent to driving 58,252 miles in an average car*. That’s 25% of the way to the moon. If you have more than 1 Jane in your company, your carbon totals multiply, fast. The table below shows you the carbon totals from each leg of her trip.

Trip

Emissions (Tonnes CO2e)

Total yearly emissions

Flights

Hotel

Taxi

Total

London to New York

4.922

0.043

0.017

4.982

9.964

London to Berlin

0.496

0.021

0.014

0.531

6.372

16.336


The power of simple travel policy changes

So, what can you do to reduce the carbon impact of business travel? Just how much carbon could you save through changes to your travel policy?

If Jane cut the number of her business trips in half, she would save 8.17 tonnes of CO2e per year.

By cutting her number of trips in half, she makes a carbon saving equivalent to consuming 18.8 barrels of oil**. If she replaced her business trip meetings with online calls, she would still achieve a near-identical carbon saving, and still get a good job done. Same amount of business, half as much carbon.

If Jane instead flew economy class on all her trips, she would save 8.43 tonnes of CO2e. This is a little more than half her annual carbon impact, saved.

The emissions from one business class seat are equivalent to 2.9 economy seats. By flying economy class instead of business class, Jane emits 7.37 tonnes vs 15.80 per year (Jane does not emit 2.9 times less due to other calculation factors). This means you can reduce approximately the same amount of carbon you would by halving your trips in this instance, by changing the class you travel in. Imagine reducing your travel emissions by 50%, just by changing your travel behaviour.

You could also look to compensate for the loss of business class with a hotel upgrade. Upgrading your hotel room will have significantly less impact on the environment than if you stayed with your business class flight. This allows you to maintain employee experience, whilst saving on carbon.

If she flew economy class for all her trips and then cut them in half, that would save a total of 12.38 tonnes of CO2e.

By switching to economy class, and cutting her business trips in half, Jane could save 12.38 tonnes of CO2e. That’s 75.8% of your carbon impact, gone. And, you may not have to sacrifice business growth. Technological innovation in digital meeting solutions has accelerated during the pandemic. You may find that these solutions comfortably fill the gap. (More on these solutions in another insight’s post!)


Now imagine that your company has 100 employees like Jane. Changing company travel policy, reducing travel, and championing digital solutions could mean a saving of 1,238 tonnes CO2e, every year.

How about the human cost?

Road warrior’s like Jane are highly remunerated for their efforts. But it’s also worth considering the human cost of business travel. Some road warriors often suffer burnout and feel undervalued by their employees. A report by NexTravel, which surveyed over 500 business travellers, found that 1 in 5 say work-related travel has a negative impact on their mental well-being. Those warriors do not want more business class trips. Reducing the amount Jane travels might also improve her productivity, drive sales, and growth of the business.

On top of reducing the amount Jane travels, you could compensate for reducing business class travel with employee wellbeing policy. For example, you could add a wellness package to the trip upon arrival at the hotel. This addition would have a lesser carbon impact than staying with business class. This allows you to cut down on carbon, while simultaneously improving employee wellbeing, and maintaining business travel experience.

Valuable business travel

We understand that business travel is an important part of many business models, and that there is a trade-off when considering reducing it. The reductions we propose here today are examples of what you can do to reduce and compensate. We acknowledge that it’s not just about cutting your business travel by a certain amount, it’s more about reflecting on which of your trips are more ‘necessary’, which ones you can reduce from business to economy class, and finding good opportunities to transition to digital. We understand that different things will work for different organisations, and that’s where we come in. If you are looking for help on how to reduce the carbon footprint of your business travel policy, please do get in touch.

The future of business travel

Even with a vaccine on the horizon, travel is anticipated to recover slowly and continue to change. It is likely that travel costs will increase. This is due to increased safety and cleaning protocols to protect travellers. After an initial price shock, airline industry group IATA estimates that airfares could rise by as much as 54% (IATA, BBC).

Therefore, the way we do business will continue to change. With increased costs, the new norm of online meetings and conferences will most likely continue.

There has also been talk of “purposeful travel”. This involves thinking more about the purpose of your trip, and can increase focus, reduce the number of trips and improve wellbeing. We’ll be discussing how carbon-saving solutions can support a more purposeful travel programme in a later insights post.

Despite the tragedy of the pandemic, it has created an opportunity to innovate. Now more than ever can we start exploring advanced remote technology solutions to bring people closer together, without the carbon impact. This can help us create a carbon-neutral world. Not only online or in-person, but somewhere in the middle.

Concluding thoughts

Business travel offers some wonderful benefits, but it does not come without costing our planet. By changing your travel behaviour, you can significantly reduce your impact. Whether it’s reducing your overall travel, choosing economy class over business or investing in a new remote solution to fill in the gap, the potential savings can save your bottom line, improve wellbeing, and help solve climate change. All in one hit.

----

The time to innovate is now. Stay tuned for more data-driven insights from the Thrust Carbon team. Let’s make travel effortlessly green together.


* Sourced from the UK Government conversion factors.

** This equivalency is sourced from the US EPA.

x