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Travelling smarter means flying less

Paul Tuohy's picture
Man with suitcase looking out of an airport window into the sunset with the silhouette of an aeroplane in the distance

Aviation is a climate problem. It is one of the most carbon-intensive forms of transport and one of the most difficult to decarbonise, and it’s getting worse.

Global carbon emissions from aviation were growing at almost six per cent a year before the pandemic, with corporate travel one of the biggest drivers of aviation demand. Frequent flyers – mostly business flyers - make up less than one per cent of the world's population, yet they account for more than half of global aviation emissions.

The pandemic proved that the only way currently to reduce carbon emissions from aviation is to reduce the number of flights. The grounding of flights during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 resulted in carbon emissions from aviation falling by 61 per cent. Quite simply, to tackle climate change and reduce carbon emissions from transport we need to fly less.

The pandemic also proved that it is possible to fly less and still get business done. In person meetings gave way to virtual ones and we realised that all that time we’d previously spent travelling could actually be used more productively, working. A You Gov poll in 2021 found that the reduction in air travel caused by Covid had no impact on the majority of respondents work life or productivity, with one in five saying the shutdown had actually had a positive impact.

So businesses and workers have adapted and working practices have changed, but the danger is as we move back to normality that we will revert to our old ways and we will see corporate travel starting to return. This would be bad news for the planet and bad news for business.

That’s why we’re supporting Transport and Environment’s (T&E) Travel Smart campaign which calls for a reduction in corporate flying to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact. The campaign is calling on companies to:

  • Commit publicly to an absolute target of at least 50 per cent reduction in flying of 2019 levels, by 2025 or sooner
  • Implement reductions in flying and choose other modes of connectivity and transport
  • Report on progress towards decreased emissions.

As part of the campaign, T&E has launched a report which ranks 230 US and European companies according to how well they are doing reducing emissions from air travel. The analysis includes 39 UK companies, 11 of which were deemed to be doing well reducing unnecessary travel and received the two highest scores. The remaining 28 were judged not to be doing enough and are falling behind on targets or reporting.

We want to see UK businesses leading the way in reducing emissions from aviation. Many UK companies have already announced targets to cut corporate flying by half, but we’d like to see far more commit to flying less and taking the train more. By reducing corporate travel by 50 per cent by 2030, we would cut European emissions by 32.6 MtCO2 which is the same as taking 16 million polluting cars off the road.

Flying less isn’t just better for the planet, it’s better for business too. Travelling smart is about being as productive as possible and making every single meeting count. Whilst not all business travel can be avoided, rail is a quick and green alternative to domestic flights - generating seven times less greenhouse emissions - and allows you to carry on working on route. We proved this recently when I ‘raced’ my colleague Norman Baker to Glasgow. I flew and he took the train. I may have got there two minutes before him, but my journey was much less productive than his.

Reducing the number of domestic business flights and replacing them with rail journeys would help immediately to reduce UK emissions from transport and that can only be a good thing.