With climate change back in the spotlight, Bob Papworth identifies the advantages of a greener travel policy
Once a year hundreds of politicians, scientists and civil servants, accompanied by hangers on of varying shades of green, hold a mega-meeting to discuss the planetary peril that is climate change.
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has been held in a host of different locations - this year it's Durban's turn - and each time delegates have signally failed to agree on anything remotely approaching a course of unilateral action.
Some of the participating nations, the UK included, have pledged to reduce their home-grown emissions, by varying amounts and by varying dates in the distant future - mostly when the politicians involved won't be around to take the flak. However, some countries have said they will do no such thing, some have said they will actually increase their emissions, some feel unable to make even the most nebulous of commitments and some don't even bother to turn up - an abstention which does the ozone layer no harm at all in the short term.
As initiatives go, then, the UNFCCC can hardly be described as a runaway success - hearts and minds are a long way from being captured. World leaders can't seem to sell it to each other, let alone to the wider public.
And yet the UK travel industry in general, and the UK travel management community in particular, can't seem to get enough of sustainability.
Of late, fears of a Great Depression sequel had meant that global warming had been pushed on to the back burner, but now it seems that 'the environment' is coming to the boil once more.
Among the first to return to the fray, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK) has just published Moving On, a report into changing corporate travel habits. Its opening remarks focus on the UK's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 to 20 per cent of what they were in 1990.
Aviation is singled out as a significant culprit, with audio-, video-and-web-conferencing highlighted as the main alternative to flying.
Referring to 2009 data from the Committee on Climate Change, WWF-UK says: "Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, and aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of CO2. Emissions from UK aviation have increased 120 per cent since 1990."
The Department for Transport's (DfT) own figures confirm this. In 1990, all aviation in the UK, both domestic and international, generated 16.9 million tonnes of CO2; by 2008, that had gone up to 36.3m tonnes. However, domestic aviation generated only 2.2m tonnes of CO2 in 2008, against 1.3m tonnes in 1990.
The 2008 figure is the same as that for rail, and less than half the figures for buses and coaches (4.9m tonnes) and domestic shipping (5.4m tonnes).
Domestic road transport generated 117.2m tonnes of CO2 in 2008, while domestic non-road transport generated just 13.1m tonnes. Transport is branded as the ecowarrior's number one enemy, but it contributes barely one-third of the nation's total carbon emissions.
Combine the emissions of both domestic and international aviation, and you get a total of 36.3m tonnes of CO2, which is roughly half the amount generated by cars.
HOW GREEN IS RAIL?
There is scope for rail to become more environmentally efficient - indeed, Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), has already echoed the UNFCCC's champions by suggesting that the rail industry should cut CO2 emissions by 50 per cent by 2050.
"Much has been done to drive down the environmental impact of rail travel, but the industry must continue its push to reduce carbon emissions if it is to remain the greenest form of public transport," he said. "New car technology will present a challenge to rail's green advantage and we cannot be complacent."
More energy efficient stations and depots, a general clampdown on wasted energy, and longer franchises to encourage train operators to invest in environmentally-friendly innovation would all help, as would a long-term programme of electrification - and there, Roberts openly admits, lies a significant problem.
The railways are the biggest single user of electricity in the country, accounting for around one per cent of the UK's total demand, but they have no say in how that electricity is produced.
"In the long term, electrification and de-carbonising the UK's power supply are central to cutting the industry's carbon footprint," Roberts said. However, if the electricity isn't green, the trains won't be either.
As far as the business travel community is concerned, rail's biggest selling-point has long been its productivity gains. Travellers can actually work on a train - nobody tells you about emergency procedures, the at-seat trolley service comes by infrequently, if at all (there's no call button), there are no scalding face-cloths on offer and the driver doesn't keep interrupting your train of thought with updates on the outside temperature.
Ironically, even greater efficiency could have a downside on the productivity front, as faster trains will reduce both journey times and working opportunities. And of course, rail remains an option only where domestic and near-Europe trips are concerned.
So for anything further afield than these trips, virtual meetings kick in.
Of the 158 companies surveyed for WWF's Moving On study, 87 per cent report an increase in audioconferencing over the past two years; 75 per cent have increased videoconferencing; and 63 per cent have stepped up web conferencing.
More than 60 per cent of companies "routinely" or "frequently" use videoconferencing, and nearly 70 per cent have increased spending on videoconferencing equipment in the past two years.
Perhaps most importantly more than 90 per cent of the companies polled say they intend to encourage greater use of audio-conferencing over the next two years, 87 per cent say the same of video-conferencing, and 78 per cent will encourage web-conferencing.
Almost two-thirds of the respondents agreed with the assertion that the recession has prompted a permanent shift in travel and meeting practices, and only 15 per cent say they will return to pre-recession flight volumes.
Brett Fulford, director of environmental sustainability at GlaxoSmithKline, says investment in so-called collaborative technologies helped his company cut nearly 38,000 flights - or 38.6m passenger kilometres - between 2008 and 2009, reducing CO2 emissions by 7,151 tonnes.
"The range of different technologies available to GlaxoSmithKline staff has not only reduced business travel, but also improved collaboration and productivity," he says.
"More timely and frequent communication can take place with little advance notice, accelerating the decision-making process and enabling staff to work more effectively."
Terri Vogt, FirstGroup's group head of corporate social responsibility (CSR), says that in 2009-10 the company increased audio-conferencing by 30 per cent, reduced business air travel by 57 per cent, and "saved" 671 tonnes of CO2 in the process.
A TMC'S RESPONSIBILITY?
The fact that neither Fulford or Vogt has the word 'travel' in their job titles prompts other questions. Given that air and rail travel together, according to the DfT, generate only a relatively small proportion of the UK's CO2 emissions, should travel managers be expected to take a lead on sustainability? Is sustainability part of a corporation's travel remit, or is travel part - and a relatively small part at that - of a sustainability remit?
Will Hasler, business travel manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), sees both sides of the argument. Companies (his own included) and governments are trying their best, but are having to battle against the 'mobility culture' that is inherent in today's global society. "Our lifestyles have changed. Fifty, maybe a hundred, years ago, if you worked in Birmingham, you lived in Birmingham, but that's no longer the case - the business brains aren't always where the business is.
"We have created this fantastic world where everything is immediate, people always have to be somewhere else - by yesterday - and we don't live anywhere near where our work is. That makes for an overreliance on the transport network, which, in turn, has a cost in terms of the environment.
"Sustainability is ingrained in everything we do as an organisation. Here at PwC we have a sustainability director, and, of course, she takes a close interest in air travel, but we're part of a much bigger picture." Much of that "bigger picture", he suggests, comes from a societal change.
Though Hasler doesn't say it himself, perhaps many of the world's environmental problems stem, at least in part, from the selfish acquisitiveness of the baby-boomer generation. Nine years of post-war austerity - rationing, introduced in 1940, did not end until 1954 - were followed by years of prodigality. People wanted more: the consumer society was born, and it proceeded to pillage all the global resources it could lay its hands on.
Hasler takes up the theme.
"I think perceptions and attitudes are changing," he says. "The generation coming into business now are a lot more aware of, and concerned about, the environment. Today they are the ones who are going to have to live with - or solve - the problems created by previous generations."
And because of that attitudinal shift, there's money to be made (or costs to be saved) in keeping the stakeholder satisfied.
"At board level, corporate social responsibility makes a lot of sense," says Hasler. "If companies are seen to be green, that enhances their reputation, but at the same time being green clearly saves money - if you don't travel, there is no carbon emission and there's no fare to pay either."
A GREENER GENERATION
Until relatively recently, business travel didn't exist. Communication - in the broadest sense - then very quickly became cheaper, easier, and generally more accessible; Marshall McLuhan's notion of the 'global village' was first mooted in 1962 and as business went multinational, so business travel followed suit. 'Travelling on business' was a mark of success, an all-expenses-paid accolade.
Half-a-century later, a new generation talks of 'me-time' and 'work-life balance'. Family bonds used to be shackles from which business trips provided a welcome break; today, 'bonding' has become an aspiration rather than anathema, and countless surveys show that road warriors not only believe, but care that business demands intrude on their family and social lives.
CSR now extends way beyond environmental concerns. 'Employee welfare' today encompasses much more than health and safety practicalities, embracing the concept of 'well-being'. Travel managers are not only expected to track and trace, but to nourish and nurture.
And where staffers have led, stakeholders have followed.
Companies already expect their suppliers - travel management companies (TMCs) included - to live up to stringent eco-standards. How long before they insist their account managers exist solely on a diet that is line-caught, rope-grown, free range and Fair Trade?
It goes farther than that. According to TNS Stakeholder Management, part of the sprawling Taylor Nelson Sofres information group, "building and maintaining a strong corporate reputation has never been more vital. A strong corporate reputation generates confidence which leads to long term competitive advantage."
Among the plus-points, TNS lists such benefits as access to capital markets, staff retention, opportunities to up-sell, and the enhanced possibility of winning new customers - all of which, it suggests, leads to "public goodwill and positive references".
Some travel managers have clearly latched on to the idea already and have taken on a CSR role, which will only enhance their reputations and career prospects.
They have seen that there is a job worth doing, and they have knuckled down and got on with it.
The UNFCCC may be green, but one suspects that may have more to do with envy than ecology.
COOL ON WARMING?
The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was originally dreamed up in June 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, at what was informally known as the Earth Summit.
In fact, the UNFCCC is neither a 'framework' nor a 'convention', but a treaty whose objective is to keep the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere below the level at which they interfere with the earth's climate system.
The treaty sets no limits on emissions, and isn't legally binding. However, it does come up with the occasional 'protocol' (the best-known of which is the 1997 Kyoto Protocol) which do set emissions reduction targets and are legally binding, but only on those countries that sign up.
Two years ago, nay-sayers such as the USA, China, Brazil and South Africa came up with the Copenhagen Accord, which recognises that the global temperature should not increase beyond 2°C, anything more presenting a danger to the planet.
The Accord was merely "noted" by the other UNFCCC participating states, and is not legally binding on anyone.
Last year, the UNFCC moved to Cancun, where the main achievement was to agree the establishment of a Green Climate Fund, worth US$100 billion a year, to help poorer countries become more environmentally-friendly.
Nobody had - or has - any idea where the money is going to come from.
When Body Shop co-founder Gordon Roddick co-launched The Big Issue in 1991, he inadvertently helped to change the face of charitable giving - generosity became a commercial proposition.
The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) has also taken the idea of mixing care with commerce, opening the Lifeboat College in 2004. Overlooking Dorset's Poole Harbour, it was designed primarily as a residential training centre for the RNLI's volunteer lifesavers, but is also available for private and corporate use.
The college consists of training, meeting and conference rooms, a bar and 100-seat restaurant and 60 en-suite twin rooms. Team-building activities include a lifeboat cockpit simulator and attempting to save lives - or avoid drowning - in the facility's pool, which can be transformed into a pitch-dark ocean swell at the push of a button.
Corporate clients include top names such as Swiss Re, insurers LV=, and the John Lewis Partnership, and the RNLI's income from corporate bookings now runs at more than £1 million a year, all of which is ploughed back into the lifeboat and lifeguard services.
Last year the RNLI Lifeboat College was rewarded with a string of accolades - the charity was a national finalist in the Hotel Booking Agents Association Awards for "best demonstration of CSR", and the outright winner of the HRS Hotel Excellence Award for "excellence in meetings".
UK CO2 EMISSIONS BY TRANSPORT SECTOR
|DOMESTIC ROAD||Million Tonnes|
|Cars and taxis||72.1|
|Buses and coaches||4.9|
|Total domestic road||117.2|
|DOMESTIC NON-ROAD||Million Tonnes|
|Other (includes military aviation and shipping)||3.4|
|Total domestic non-road||13.1|
|Total domestic transport||130.3|
|Total transport (domestic and international)||171.9|
|Net domestic emissions, all sources||532.8|
Source: Department for Transport