What is the solution?
The solution is to reduce travel – especially by air – by shifting from face-to-face meetings to remote meetings and training. Telepresence solutions include a variety of video systems, such as high-end immersive telepresence, multipurpose-room systems, desktop systems, videophones, and cloud-based software systems (such as Skype or Zoom).
What are the gains?
When estimating the climate gains of a measure, it is important to assess the carbon footprint of alternatives considered. While virtual conferences emit far less greenhouse gas emissions relative to their physical counterparts, they still have an impact on the environment. (1) (2)
Increasing the share of online meetings also provides an opportunity for an organisation to improve the work-life balance of their employees and reduce spending on transport.
COVID-19 lessons learned
Travel is not always necessary to meet the objectives of a meeting. Organisations and individuals learned this lesson from the Covid-19 crisis and have adapted. New videoconferencing tools were adopted or generalised as alternatives to face-to-face meetings. Most organisations experienced a clear success through this year of essential-only travel. This also worked well, because, since everyone was affected, the “fear of missing out” was reduced. On the other hand, some organisations realised the value of face-to-face interaction, as a lot of informal and non-verbal communication is lost in videoconferencing. As lockdown measures are disappearing, the standardisation of these new business travel practices is on the table.
Is it easy to implement?
The “online meetings solution” is relatively easy to implement, but it must not contravene the organisation’s primary objectives. Non-essential travel should be identified at the organisation level (headquarters’ missions, training, business meetings) and at the work unit level. The solution is easily measurable, reportable and verifiable. It has a high symbolic value, improves staff well-being and saves a significant amount of money.
Key implementation points
To ensure effective implementation of the solution, an overarching global target should be set at the organisation level and reflected in the organisation’s travel policy. This overall target should then also be broken down by work unit by the heads of unit. These managers are in the best position to know the professional realities and needs, to identify the margins of progress, to exchange with their teams and take action. Working at this level is crucial and also allows for staff empowerment and commitment.
A monitoring system of kilometres travelled, and their associated carbon footprint, could be put in place (in collaboration with the travel agency) to evaluate the implementation throughout the year and adapt if necessary.
For some employees, travelling abroad for professional reasons may be seen as an important benefit. Sometimes it is also a key reason for choosing a job. Awareness campaigns are crucial to ensure staff acceptability of the travel reduction measure and to promote its benefits.
#1 Clear targets
Set clear flight reduction targets at an organisational level (top-down), and further broken down to the different departments (bottom-up).
#2 Finding alternatives
Identify travels that could be done online without compromising the overall objectives of the organisation. For the aid sector, debriefing meetings after a mission could be held online.
#3 Videoconferencing priority rule
Introduce a videoconferencing-priority rule for meetings in the organisation’s travel policy so that business travel becomes the exception.
#4 Approval process
Submit travel requests for the approval of the manager.
#5 Videoconference software
Purchase a professional license for videoconference software in order to benefit from all the features. Choose one that emits less GHG.
#6 IT facilitation tools
Consider using IT facilitation tools, such as a brainstorming one.
#7 Training and assistance
Provide training (how to use videoconferencing tools; how to manage virtual meetings; what best eco-friendly practices can be implemented) and provide assistance (technical issues) to the staff.
#8 Track achievements
Quantify the gains achieved, through a carbon tracker tool for example.
• Reduction of transport costs
• Time savings and improved work-life balance
• Health-related benefits (less time spent in transportation, less jet lag, better sleep)
• Efficiency gains (employees are more rested and do not loose time in transit)
• Comfort of being at home or in the office
• Strong and vocal political will from leadership
• Set clear reduction targets, at different levels
• Increase awareness and empower staff
Prequisites & specificities
• Access to appropriate IT tools, materials and internet connection
• Some remote locations do not have the necessary connectivity to ensure online meetings
• Reluctance from some employees who consider business travel as an acquired professional benefit
• Social isolation
• Health effects related to the excessive use of screens
• Weaker information protection (depends on IT facilities)
Covid-19 and online meetings
During the Covid-19 crisis, most organisations have shifted from face-to-face to online meetings. A number of organisations measured the benefits from these measures, in terms of carbon emissions, but also in terms of cost and time savings. Many organisations have decided to continue using a mixture of virtual and face-to-face meetings. Some already include the online meeting priority in their travel policy. A Deloitte corporate travel study shows that half of the companies surveyed are optimising their travel policy to decrease their environmental impact (8).
ETH Zurich travel policy
ETH Zurich updated its travel policy in 2021, allowing only the most necessary business trips and preferring virtual alternatives. Flights are restricted to an absolute minimum. Train or bus are preferred for destinations that can be reached in less than 8 hours’ travel time. The use of frequent flyer miles earned on business trips is forbidden for private use. More globally, since 2018 ETH Zurich has set ambitious targets to reduce air travel, strongly raised awareness among its staff and has developed specific incentives, tools and mechanisms to support action. These include a carbon footprint data monitoring system, a travel booking tool, a flight decision tree, an Award for Sustainable Travel, better virtual meetings tools and even their own internal CO₂ tax (9).
The Tyndall Centre Travel Decision Tree
The Tyndall Centre Travel Strategy encourages the reduction of carbon emissions by encouraging its staff to set personal objectives and to use a decision tree when evaluation whether or not to travel for work (10).
The North Yorkshire County Council CO2
The North Yorkshire County Council (UK) estimates its overall savings per year thanks to online meetings: 131,338 miles, £55,221, 668 working days otherwise lost in travel time and 36,774 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions (11).
The University of Michigan's tool to estimate emissions from virtual conferences
The University of Michigan has developed a tool to estimate emissions from virtual conferences. A case study shows that a May 2020 virtual conference produced 66 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an in-person international gathering in San Francisco would have (12).
Tools and good practices
To go further
(1) Caractérisation des effets rebond induits par le télétravail, 2020. Read here.
(2) A framework to estimate emissions from virtual conferences, 2021. Read here.
(3) Deloitte corporate travel study. Read here.
(4) Professional travel represent 15% of travel globally. Read here.
(5) Professional travel represent 15% of travel globally. Read here.
(6) Round trip flight in economy class Nairobi-Geneva emits 2857 kg CO₂. Read here.
(7) Videoconference without video emits 2 to 3 times less CO₂ than with video. Read here.
(8) A 4 hour videoconference emits 0.240 kg of CO₂. Read here.
(9) ETH Zurich. Read here.
(10) The Tyndall Centre Travel Decision Tree. Read here.
(11) The North Yorkshire County Council. Read here.
(12) The University of Michigan. Read here.
Cover photo © Christina Wocintechchat/Unsplash