Whether you're meeting clients for drinks at a hot downtown boîte or flying off to Singapore for a trade show, business travel invariably involves fossil-fuel intensive transportation, usually by plane or car. The result: a load of greenhouse gas emissions that continue to relentlessly jack up the global warming tally. In addition, hotels, restaurants, and conference centers consume multi-megawatts of energy and heap mountains of waste, not to mention the piles of garbage from drinks and snack foods that business travelers themselves abandon en route.
With Americans making an estimated 405 million long-distance business trips each year (those exceeding 50 miles), the eco-cost of doing business away from the office is steep. Fortunately, green travel options exist, such as staying in an green hotel, opting for a hybrid rental car, or purchasing carbon offsets to minimize business travel footprints. All that's required: a little forethought and your employer's buy-in.
US business travelers log 240 billion passenger-miles in the sky alone each year to attend conferences, trade shows, and client meetings. In fact, global air travel accounts for approximately 7 percent of worldwide carbon emissions. Most of these emissions occur at high altitudes, where not only CO2 is released but also nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and water vapor.
In more dramatic terms, flying to Europe and back from the US contributes 3 to 4 tons of CO2 per person. That’s more than what 20 people in Bangladesh produce per year and roughly half the CO2 produced by the average American annually via all other sources (home heating, lighting, driving a car, etc.) Approximately 3.2 million acres of trees would need to be planted every year to offset the emissions caused by the 240 billion miles American business flyers rack up annually.
Forget that image of the harried executive running with briefcase and overcoat to catch a flight. The truth is, most business travelers take to the open road rather than fly, typically venturing 250 miles or less to reach their destination. In fact, only about 16 percent of business trips are by plane. In contrast, car travel accounts for 81 percent of corporate travel.
The good news is that getting there by car produces fewer CO2 emissions than plane travel: even a long-distance, 12,000-mile car trip releases less CO2 than a single transatlantic flight. Even so, because there are so many vehicles on the road, transportation is responsible for about one-third of CO2 emissions in the US with cars and light trucks accounting for a majority. Together cars, SUVs, and minivans emit more than 300 million tons of carbon each year in the US. This amount is equivalent to the emissions generated by a 50,000-mile-long coal train—which would stretch between Washington, DC, and Los Angeles 17 times over. For every gallon of gas a car burns, it emits nearly 20 pounds of CO2. Thus, a 3,000-mile drive in a vehicle that gets 20 miles per gallon produces 3,000 pounds of CO2.
Trains and buses
Train and bus travel is up to five times more energy-efficient than going by car and produces three to seven times fewer CO2 emissions than flying. Public transportation is another good green bet for nearby company jaunts..
Where to stay
About 85 percent of the more than 200 million corporate travelers in 1999 stayed overnight in a hotel or motel. With the average hotel producing approximately .01 metric tons of greenhouse gases in a single night, the eco-impact of overnighting it is significant. US hotels alone generated about 170,000 metric tons of CO2 in 2005—the amount produced by nearly 37,000 cars in one year. Green hotels—a growing segment of the industry—work to cut solid waste and conserve water and energy via a number of measures, including installing energy-efficient HVAC systems, using energy-saving CFL light bulbs, and providing racks that allow towels to air-dry instead of being washed daily.
Every year, more than 80 million business travelers "meet and greet" at conferences and trade shows around the world. The eco-price of so much face-time includes endless hills of waste and jumbo-watt energy consumption to keep attendees supplied with food and drink and meeting places lighted and comfortably heated or cooled. In fact, a single five-day conference, hosting 2,500 participants, will use an estimated 90,000 cans or bottles, 75,000 cups, and 87,500 napkins. "Reduced waste" conferences are beginning to pop up as an alternative to carbon-heavy business meetings, offering recycling services, and organic and low-meat meals, and other eco-amenities.
It's a novel idea for many executives, but more business is being conducted virtually via conference calls and videoconferences. Though not quite the same as a real-life meeting or convention, videoconferencing technology, in particular, has undergone an upgrade in recent years. You may not be able to forgo every business trip (there's nothing like going face-to-face and mano-a-mano with clients), but you can take a chunk out of your carbon travelprint by opting to "meet" from the comfort of your office chair.
Many organizations and companies offer carbon offsets that allow business travelers to minimize their greenhouse gas emissions from activities such as plane and car travel by purchasing credits toward green projects that reduce carbon emissions. Critics, though, charge that all offsets aren’t created equal. The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which regulates advertising claims, began hearings in 2008 to investigate where offset funds actually go. The concern is that some claims may overstate the eco-benefits of offsets. For instance, opponents contend that some projects, such as tree planting efforts, may not be worth the $5 to $20 paid per ton of carbon offset because investing in forest protection doesn’t help reduce dependency on fossil fuels the way, for example, renewable energy projects do. In addition, a number of programs aren’t monitored for quality by a third-party.
Some groups have developed offset standards or are in the process of doing so, however not all standards are equally stringent. One of the most comprehensive and widely endorsed is the Gold Standard, which certifies offset projects that follow strict criteria and are verified by independent third parties. Also see A Consumer’s Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers, which describes how different offset programs stack up against one another.
Questions to get you started...
- How do you book business travel? Through a travel agent or on your own?
- Does your company track air travel? If so, what's your total annual air travel (in miles)?
- Is there an active effort to mitigate travel when possible and replace with teleconferencing or video conferencing]]? Do you have video conferencing equipment?
- Do you use a standard car/limo service?
- Does your company own and/or operate private jets? If so, what's your annual fuel consumption?
- Do you offset emissions from business travel?
- If your company has a private fleet of vehicles, what is the annual distance traveled by the vehicles and total fuel consumption? What percentage of the company vehicles have a fuel efficiency above 40 mpg?
- Is fuel efficiency taken into account when purchasing company vehicles?
- volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products, including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings, and may cause immediate and long-term health problems.
- Go Green Travel Green
- Green Meeting Industry Council
- National Recycling Coalition - Green Meetings Policy
- GreenBiz.com - Greening Your Company's Business Travel
- The Transnational newsletter - Green Business Travel Programs Proliferate
- Business Green - Could high-speed rail become the business travel option of choice?
- Executive Travel Magazine - Go green: Carbon offsets, eco-friendly hotels are the newest trend
- US Environmental Protection Agency - It’s Easy Being Green! A Guide To Planning and Conducting Environmentally Aware Meetings and Events
- US Environmental Protection Agency - Green Meetings Developed by the EPA's Environmentally Preferable Purchasing program, the site offers tips and strategies for reducing energy use, water use, and waste at business conferences.
- US Bureau of Travel Statistics - National Household Travel Survey: US Business Travel
- GreenBiz.com - Greening Your Company's Business Travel
- United Nations Atlas of the Oceans - Air travel pollution
- Tufts University Climate Initiative - Flying Green: How To Protect the Climate and Travel Responsibly
- GreenBiz.com - Environmentally Responsible Business Travel
- TreeHugger - Air Travel and Climate Change: Take the Train
- Center for Climate Change and Environmental Forecasting - Transportation and Air Quality
- Environmental Defense - Global Warming on the Road
- EcoBridge - Causes of Global Warming
- Climate Action Network Europe
- Sustainable Travel International
- Green Meeting Industry Council - Green Meetings: Good for the Earth