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The pandemic killed business travel. For the sake of the climate, it should stay dead

Despite its outsize carbon footprint, business travel has been seen as a socially acceptable form of pollution. The pandemic has forced a reckoning.

The pandemic killed business travel. For the sake of the climate, it should stay dead
[Photo: Raf Jabri/Pexels; Pixabay/Pexels; Zbynek Burival/Unsplash; rawpixel]
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This story is part of The Road Ahead, a series that examines the future of travel and how we’ll experience the world after the pandemic.

In 2019, Salesforce employees traveled so much for work that they generated a combined 146,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. That’s the same amount emitted by 17,500 homes over the course of an entire year; it would take more than 178,000 acres of forest 12 months to sequester that carbon dioxide. Even as Salesforce worked to reduce its overall carbon footprint, its business travel emissions were rapidly increasing—up nearly 18% from 2017. 

In 2020, everything changed: The company’s total business travel emissions dropped 86% to just 20,000 metric tons, according to its fiscal year 2021 stakeholder impact report. What had changed, of course, was the sudden halting of all travel due to COVID-19. (Salesforce’s 2021 fiscal year covers February 2020 to January 2021.) 

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“A few years ago, we committed that we would offset all business travel and employee commuting emissions, pre-pandemic,” says Patrick Flynn, Salesforce head of sustainability. Offsets aren’t enough, he acknowledges—the world needs to drastically cut emissions, not wait for years for trees to grow and eventually sequester carbon from our atmosphere—but trying to curb business-travel emissions had long been a challenge. “Then the pandemic happened, and travel went to zero, and our business carried on.” 

Salesforce wasn’t alone. Companies across the spectrum discovered an unexpected benefit of grounding their employees during the pandemic: a lowering of carbon emissions from business travel. Though air travel, and specifically business travel, represents 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, it accounts for an outsized portion of an individual’s—and business’s—carbon footprint. One round-trip ticket from London to New York City generates more emissions than what the average person in 56 countries produces in an entire year. And short-haul flights can produce more 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 spotlight on the role that business travel plays in climate change. And it’s forced companies and individual travelers alike to reckon more directly with the impact that their sales trips and team-building jaunts have on the health of the planet.

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The challenge now—as millions get vaccinated and travel restrictions ease—is to ensure that a return to “business as usual” doesn’t come with a surge in emissions and skyrocketing company carbon footprints. Even with the world shuttered and a record drop in global emissions, we still added 39 gigatonnes of CO2 from all human activities to our atmosphere last year.

Though business travel is expected to bounce back more slowly than leisure trips, industry experts are sure it will return, and that the age of Zoom won’t completely replace in-person meetings and international conferences. But the extremes of 2020 served as a reset moment for many companies, forcing them to reassess how and why they travel, and what their business trips will look like in the future.

Just how bad is business travel? 

“Business travel” is almost synonymous with airline travel: jet setting for in-person meetings, sitting in the front of the plane, racking up miles and taking advantage of airport lounges. In the grand scheme of global emissions, it can be easy to overlook the role of airline travel. But aviation’s carbon footprint is growing quickly. A 2019 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that airline emissions had increased by 32% from 2013 to 2018—70% faster than the UN had projected it would grow; by 2050, aviation emissions could account for a quarter of the global carbon budget that we’ll need to embrace in order to limit global warming to 1.5ºC.

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One percent of the world’s population accounts for 50% of global aviation emissions.

A select group of people are responsible for most of these travel emissions: In 2018, only 11% of people around the world took a flight at all, and just 4% (at most) flew abroad, according to a study helmed by Stefan Gössling, a sustainable tourism researcher and a professor at Sweden’s Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics. One percent of the world’s population—a group that Gössling calls “super frequent flyers”—accounts for 50% of global aviation emissions. 

People who travel for work tend to have larger carbon footprints—and not just because they fly more frequently. Studies have found that space-hogging business-class seats are responsible for up to five times as many CO2 emissions as those in economy. “It’s not just the number of flights people have been taking, it’s also the class they’re flying that’s important for determining emissions,” Gössling says. “So if business travel goes down, it would definitely have a significant impact for two reasons: fewer people flying in the premium classes, and also the number of flights coming down.”

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But despite the evidence that business travel accounts for a disproportionate amount of airline emissions, there’s been a sense that this kind of travel is somehow exempt. “I used to call it the last socially acceptable form of pollution,” says Dan Rutherford, who directs the shipping and aviation program at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation. “People would never brag about buying a huge SUV, but they brag about flying 100,000, 200,000 miles a year.” He estimates that flying for work makes up about 75% of his personal carbon footprint. “If you’re a major consulting company like Deloitte, that’s true for most of your staff,” he says.

“People would never brag about buying a huge SUV, but they brag about flying 100,000, 200,000 miles a year.”

But climate activists have been putting this segment of carbon emissions in the spotlight—Greta Thunberg made multiple headlines when she chose to sail rather than fly to the 2019 United Nations Climate summit. And, after a year without business travel, companies are more boldly acknowledging the toll that corporate travel takes on the environment. They’re using the pandemic to announce new promises to reduce (and offset) business travel emissions as a way to reach their sustainability goals. 

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In January, consulting firm EY set a goal to cut business travel emissions 35% by fiscal year 2025, compared to 2019 levels; in February, Deloitte announced it would cut business travel emissions per employee in half by 2030; and in April, Salesforce promised to reduce business travel carbon emission intensity by 50% relative to pre-pandemic levels effective immediately. 

Business travel will come back—but it will be different 

The pandemic is not the first crisis the travel sector has faced. After 9/11, travel dipped, but came back stronger than ever; the same happened after the 2008 financial crisis. Though the duration and magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis are unprecedented, Bryan Terry, global airlines leader at Deloitte anticipates a similar trend for travel—even corporate travel. “We think business travel will rebound,” he says. “But it will come back differently, and it will come back slower.”

That slow pace isn’t because of sustainability concerns, Terry says. Companies may reconsider sending someone abroad for a half day meeting in London because they can save money by doing it virtually. But Evan Konwiser, executive vice president of product and strategy for American Express Global Business Travel (GBT), which oversees corporate travel booking for companies of all sizes, doesn’t see conferences, internal meetings, and even customer meetings staying completely virtual. There have always been costs associated with business travel, not just financial but also in terms of productivity (hello, jet lag). If your company was willing to greenlight travel for conferences, meetings, and so on in 2019, the “vast majority” of those actions, he says, will still be worth a business trip in 2022. In this scenario, companies looking to lower their carbon footprints won’t simply reduce or stop business travel. They’ll focus on lowering travel-related emissions—a distinction that deserves the same scrutiny as broad ‘net zero’ goals.

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To Rutherford, the quickest and easiest thing a corporation can do to cut its business-travel emissions (besides keeping employees at home) is to opt for economy over business class. There’s been a lot of resistance to that idea over the years, he acknowledges. People who travel for work like the status that accompanies the front of the plane, and being asked to squeeze into coach for a transatlantic flight just to attend one meeting is unlikely to make someone look fondly on their employer. 

There are other ways to bring down emissions. Rather than purchasing the most economical flight, companies may be more willing to pay a “green premium,” buying a ticket for a more efficient, direct flight over a cheaper, indirect one, or intentionally choosing operators that fly newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft. In June 2020, American Express GBT debuted a feature in its travel management software that lets users filter potential trips by their total emissions. There’s not yet much data on how many companies will opt for the most sustainable trip over the most affordable one, but Nora Lovell Marchant, American Express GBT’s VP of sustainability, thinks it will happen. After all, companies have already shown that they’re willing to pay for carbon offsets, another kind of green premium.   

Changing the mode of travel could also curb emissions. Switching from air to rail could mean a 90% reduction in emissions for that trip, Lovell Marchant says—though she acknowledges that’s easier to do in the European Union than the U.S. (France is one of multiple European countries to recently ban short flights that can be replaced by a train trip, though Rutherford points out there’s a caveat for connecting flights associated with long-haul trips.) 

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And finally, there’s Sustainable Aviation Fuels, or SAFs, new fuel innovations that also come with a huge premium. Right now, SAFs aren’t a solution to curbing emissions because usage is so low; less than 0.5% of jet fuels used today are SAFs, Rutherford says, and they can cost as much as four times a typical fuel. But corporations and airlines are beginning to work together to bring down the cost and ramp up use. In October 2020, Microsoft and Alaska Airlines partnered on a SAF deal that involved the tech giant buying SAF credits from a third-party company, which would then supply sustainable fuels to Alaska. Just last month, Microsoft joined with Boeing, Deloitte, Boston Consulting Group, JPMorgan Chase, Netflix, and Salesforce to launch the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance to spur SAF production and technology innovations so these fuels can scale.

The pandemic pulled back the curtain on how much of business travel is really necessary.

With SAFs comes one big concern: Companies and airlines could “double count” emissions savings. “When you see United or American make an announcement saying ‘we’re going to have a partnership with this corporation and use it to introduce SAFs,’ that’s great,” Rutherford says. “But according to the laws of accounting emissions, that actually means the airline’s greenhouse gas emissions are unchanged. They’ve sold the reduction to a third-party.” The trouble comes if both parties try to claim the reduction. Konwiser recognizes that’s a concern and says American Express GBT is working on solutions.

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SAFs could represent a breakthrough solution for future emissions. But the fact remains: We need to make drastic changes right now. “You’re never going to resolve the emissions issue without changes in the system. Technology is not going to cut it,” says Gössling, the sustainable tourism researcher. “We have to really cut down on individual travel and we have to start at the top,” with that 1% of fliers who cause half of all aviation emissions. “It has to start with the very frequent flyers, it has to start with the premium classes, and only then will we stand a chance to manage this through technology.”

To Gössling, the pandemic pulled back the curtain on how much of business travel is really necessary. In the before-times, “People would tell their bosses, ‘Oh I’ve got to fly again because otherwise I’m not really sure we’ll get the deal.’ At the end of the day, maybe that was not really true,” he says.

The world is opening up again and the appeal of business travel is coming back—but the rational arguments against it still exist. It’s just not our own health that’s at risk with every work trip, but our planet’s.