The Trouble with Reducing Air-Travel Related Emissions


We were delighted to be interviewed recently by Bloomberg's, Ben Elgin, on the topic of corporate air travel (and why companies are struggling to reduce air travel-related emissions). SSC President, Jennifer Woofter, was quoted in his article,  "Handshakes and Body English Vex Corporate Carbon Cutting Goals":

"Airplane travel is an environmental no-no," says Jennifer Woofter, President of Strategic Sustainability Consulting in Herndon, Virginia. "A number of our clients are struggling with this."

As with many articles, the final quote is but a smidgen of what we have to say on the topic. Since it didn't make the final cut in the Bloomberg article, we'd like to share what we know on the question of "Why are companies struggling to reduce their air travel?" 

Air Travel Is Connected to Important Employee Perks

While promotions and raises may have hit the skids during the recession, one of the perks that many employees have been able to hang on to is the annual conference, training event, or trade show.

Employers need to invest in the professional development of their staff, and many workers enjoy the benefits of getting out of the office environment to learn something new, network with industry peers, or showcase their talents.

Companies can reduce air travel to a certain extent, but if even a portion of the workforce travels periodically for professional development reasons, it's going to be difficult to find additional air emissions reductions without sacrificing employee morale and engagement.

Growing Telework Can Mean Increased Air Travel

We have several clients who have dramatically increased the ability of their employees to work from home. This policy has significantly reduced employee commuting-related emissions (from driving to and from work each day) but occasionally results in more air travel when virtual workers relocate to remote areas. Instead of driving each day, they may fly into the corporate office once a month, or once a quarter. Those air miles add up quickly.

The Cost of Virtual Meetings Is Still Significant

Let's not ignore cost. While there are a number of pretty amazing free tools (Skype and are two of our favorite), companies that need high-resolution, ultra-secure video presence need to shell out a pretty penny. And it's not enough to install a videoconferencing center in your corporate office -- you also need one in each of the connecting locations. It might make sense to install a system in each of your branch offices, but what about the locations of your major suppliers, or at the headquarters of your prospective customers? Nope, that won't work -- most of the time you will still need to send people out to do business in a face-to-face setting.

Of course, the biggest roadblock is one that is covered in detail in the Bloomberg article, the fact that an electronic handshake just isn't the same as spending time in the physical presence of another person. So while we do counsel clients on how to reduce unnecessary air travel, we also face reality: most businesses will need to maintain some level of air travel and the best option is to look broadly at the entire picture (telepresence, commuting, air travel, professional development, and the sales process) and find a balanced approach that makes good business sense. 

Curious about how to better measure and manage commuting-related emissions? Download our free white paper on Reducing your Organization's Carbon Footprint:  Addressing Commuter Related Emissions