The travel industry is responsible for 8-11% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally, so it is no surprise that the progress of decarbonisation of this sector has always been high on the agenda in climate-related events like the annual Conference of the Parties (COP).
Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, UN member states, including the UK, have pledged to reach net-zero by 2050. The UK government has also set an additional target to cut carbon emissions by 78% by 2035 compared to 1990 levels. These ambitious goals indicate that we only have a small window of opportunity to make this happen, and bold actions are required by both the public and private sectors to reach those national targets.
Sustainable business travel is seen as a key solution to achieving the UK’s decarbonisation targets.
Living in a globalised and interconnected world, travel has become an established aspect of how we do business. It helps build and maintain relationships, fosters collaborations, enhances brand reputation and so much more. Yet, these actions have led to severe environmental, social and economic consequences.
In fact, Scope 3 emissions, or the indirect greenhouse gas emissions from activities like corporate travel, often contribute to upwards of 90% of a company’s carbon footprint. Therefore, it is vital that businesses take responsibility for their actions and put measures in place to cut their emissions.
One way to achieve this, for emissions associated with business travel, is by building and implementing a sustainable travel policy for your organisation.
What to consider when building a sustainable travel policy
Before building a sustainable travel policy, you need to understand where your corporate travel carbon emissions come from. Doing this will help you create guidelines that are relevant to your business’ activities and goals.
You can gain this insight by performing an audit – carried out in-house or by a third party – of your corporate travel carbon footprint. Once this has been completed and material carbon sources have been identified, you can start building your policy.
Here are the key components of a sustainable travel policy and what type of guidelines you can implement within your own strategy.
Alternatives to travel
Short trips, and travel for internal business purposes are among those that are most easily replaced by virtual tools such as Teams meetings, or Zoom – in these instances, digital communications such as virtual meetings should be encouraged. However, if meeting face to face is necessary, opt for longer periods or try to combine several trips into one.
When it comes to daily commutes, such as going into the office, this can be replaced with working from home. If that is not possible and some attendance is required on-site, then hybrid working would best suit your business. Making this change can significantly lower your emissions.
Indeed, remote working can reduce your carbon footprint by 54% and hybrid working by 11-29%. Having said that, hybrid workers who go into the office four days a week, only lower the carbon footprint by around 2%. Therefore, to make a real difference, you would ideally need employees to work from home at least two days a week.
It’s important to note that, at the moment, this inclusion in emissions reduction strategies is voluntary under Scope 3 reporting for commuting. These emissions are not entirely removed by staff working from home, but the impact is lessened, emphasising the transitional nature of current workplace practices.
When it comes to transportation methods, the best way to reduce your carbon footprint is by encouraging employees to use public transport or, even better, walking or cycling.
If that’s not an option, and a private mode of transportation is needed, it would be best to look at renewable sources and aim to electrify corporate travel. For instance, you could choose EV rentals, opt for electric or hybrid taxis or even launch an employee electric car scheme. This should be accompanied by incentives for employees to switch to electric vehicles – for example, installing EV charging stations in office premises.
Your sustainable travel policy could also prioritise rail before air travel if journeys are under a certain duration. When looking at the carbon footprint per kilometre for different modes of transport, there are stark differences. Domestic flights on average emit 246gCO2e/km and long-haul flights 193gCO2e/km, on the other hand, National Rail emits 35gCO2e/km and the Eurostar only 6gCO2e/km. Therefore, implementing this guideline could significantly lower your carbon emissions.
However, rail won’t always be possible, especially when it comes to extended itineraries. In those cases where flying is a necessity, businesses should opt for a newer aircraft and direct flights as this will help reduce your carbon footprint. Also, choosing economy seats can further support this goal as travelling first class can lead to emissions four times greater than travelling economy, as the fuel used is apportioned across fewer people.
A 2023 analysis by Trainline of 250,000 different popular UK journeys shows that train can also offer the fastest and/or cheapest mode of travel compared with driving or flying in the majority of cases, if travellers are also encouraged to make cost-saving decisions.
Look for eco-friendly hotels or stays with green certifications. If you’re unsure about their credibility, you can always check whether they follow a sustainability policy or have published any environmental reports.
From a more practical perspective, look for lodgings that reduce energy and water consumption, adopt sustainable modes of transportation, actively minimise food and plastic waste, and adopt other green measures. An accommodation that offers these services can reassure you of its sustainable qualities.
Offsetting carbon emissions
Unfortunately, you can’t avoid all carbon emissions. This is why selecting a carbon offsetting scheme can help mitigate any residual environmental impact. You can either invest in verified carbon removal projects through forestry, soil carbon sequestration and other methods, or focus carbon reduction from the atmosphere, such as renewable energy source investment.
For instance, Climate Neutral Britain, the UK’s leading carbon offsetting initiative, aims to help businesses and individuals make a positive impact on climate change. This is achieved by funding projects, mostly related to afforestation and reforestation, in Britain and the rest of the world to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Benefits of a sustainable travel policy
Implementing a sustainable corporate travel policy comes with numerous benefits, many of which are environmental.
For instance, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, you would be helping the UK government keep its goal of reaching net-zero by 2050. You would also be playing a part in mitigating the effects of global warming and the impact of natural disasters. While one business’ actions won’t change the world, it can certainly initiate a positive feedback loop, encouraging other organisations to do the same. Finally, by reducing your carbon footprint, you would be protecting natural resources such as water, soil, and biodiversity, maintaining the delicate balance our ecosystem needs in order to survive.
As you contribute to the fight against climate change, you simultaneously enhance your image and brand reputation. In turn, this could help you acquire or maintain a social license to operate. This concept is based on the idea that organisations require approval not only from regulators but also from society, and the only way to obtain this “license” is by fitting in and adapting to the current social norms. Although intangible and unwritten, this license can provide you with stakeholder approval as well as credibility and legitimacy – characteristics that are vital in today’s competitive markets.
Through the creation of sustainable travel (and other environmental) policies, you can even benefit from increased employee acquisition and retention as studies show that more people want to work for a company that cares.
By having a positive environmental and social impact, more customers and investors will be interested in doing business with you. And that is not all. You may also be able to reduce costs as employees should be travelling less, and therefore, expenses related to transportation and accommodation could decrease too.
Overall, a sustainable travel policy will boost your business and help you stand out from the competition.
Reduce your carbon footprint with a sustainable travel policy
Once you have built a relevant sustainable travel policy, it will be time to implement the guidelines. For it to succeed, it is vital to educate employees on this policy to change traveller behaviour and highlight responsible actions. Additionally, to ensure your policy is indeed lowering your carbon footprint, make sure to regularly collect data and track progress made.