As we enter 2020, an entirely new decade is opening up full of incredible opportunities to improve the climate impact from the corporate travel program (and the wider travel industry) as well as change how we behave as travelers on a daily basis.
Looking back at the past 10 years, it is fair to say that carbon emission and offset barely made the headlines apart from the last year or so when the “Greta Effect” started spreading around the world and terms like “flygskam,” “flight shame,” “greenwashing” and “carbon consciousness” suddenly appeared in the mainstream media landscape.
But looking at the past decade actually gives hope - as corporate travel terms like “duty of care,” “traveler-centricity” and “traveler well-being” evolved from being completely new capabilities in the first half of the decade to a position of default and even mandatory components in any self‐respecting travel program. Based on this development it seems reasonable to hope and assume that we will consider “green travel policies” completely normal by the end of the '20s.
So where are we today, and what are some realistic expectations and predictions for how such a new layer of control and governance will evolve? And what new services and solutions do we need to develop and operationalize in order to succeed?
Establishing a baseline
Any good program or policy starts with identifying a baseline, so let us take a look at where we are today and what options we have for measuring and improving the program going forward.
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IATA has done a great job in the past two years of creating some basic facts and standards that have sufficient credibility to serve as the foundation for initial components of a green travel policy framework.
Without going into technical details, it seems widely accepted that aviation accounted for around 900 million tons of CO2 emission (CO2E) in 2018 equal to an estimated 2.4% of total global emissions (12% of total transportation-related CO2E), and this number is sadly forecast to triple to more than 2,700 million tons of CO2 by 2050.
Despite the fact that airlines have become significantly more fuel efficient, we are experiencing a dramatic growth in total aviation emission as the number of planes flying more hours per day keeps growing much faster than the gains made in fuel efficiency.
However, because most of the emission happens at high altitude during the actual flight, the “net emission impact” is considered by experts to be twice that number and then further increased due to the amount of energy that goes into production of aviation fuel.
According to the carbonindependent.org research, this means one hour of flying with either a Boeing 737 or a Boeing 747 produces 90 kilograms CO2E for each passenger per hour flown, but the total impact on the environment is estimated to be 250 kilograms CO2E per passenger for each hour flown - for the Airbus supporters out there you should assume the carbon emission impact is the same on their planes as engine technology and fuel production processes are identical.
Within one to three years we will see the emergence of a new type of loyalty program designed to acknowledge and promote the travelers who are most carbon conscious.
On the hotel front, we are also able to establish the likely emission per night as the global average currently is defined as 31.5 kilograms CO2E per room per night, but given the much higher number of properties and contributing factors, there is a higher level of uncertainty around the actual emission for a given hotel.
Finally, airports are also increasing their focus on the CO2E problem, and in 2018, the average emission per departing passenger in airports worldwide was estimated to be 1.81 kilograms CO2E, again with significant differences per airport given the differences in their green capabilities.
To illustrate the impact of these numbers, a travel program with annual totals of 100,000 hours of flying, 50,000 airport departures and 10,000 room nights creates a total CO2E of 25,405 tons, which equals an estimated emission of 0.508 tons of CO2E per travel day using 50,000 days of travel as the sample value. And now we have a baseline to improve on.
Defining a green travel program
With nine years and about 350 days left, it seems reasonable to define some relatively aggressive targets for how a green travel program will work by the end of this decade, so here are a few suggestions for travel buyers and suppliers to consider and hopefully be inspired by.
- Define your travel program targets for CO2E per day, month, quarter or year
Obviously this component only has relevance if there is an established credible capture of data used for calculating the estimated CO2E, which most likely will be created by a new startup as a micro service capable of calculating the exact emission for a given booking based on class of travel, aircraft flown and operational efficiency of the airline/airport/hotel/ground transportation provider involved. I refer to this new type of solutions as GTaaS, or “Green Travel as a Service,” and expect we will see the first examples before the end of 2020.
- Select travel services based on emission rather than price
Almost all travel searches are based on price today, but as the green travel policy becomes more important, travelers will request and eventually demand the ability to search for an airline seat based on the actual carbon emission for the flight or accommodation option.
Imagine a traveler starting a search for a flight from London to New York by specifying they only want to look at flights generating less than 600 kilograms of CO2E for their seat or 25 kilograms CO2E per night for a hotel room. This will require completely new tags or qualifiers in our search engines.
- Simplify CO2E offset models
Airlines have so far complicated the process of offsetting CO2E for a given flight to a level that means most travelers ignore the option. And for the few travelers who decide to go through the process, the next big problem emerges when they realize how little control or influence they have on where the offset actually is being used and how much of the money allocated will end up having an impact.
Looking ahead we will have a new element in the travel profile designed to manage the CO2E offset process, combined with a cumulative status of the actual value of the offset amount by the individual traveler.
Within one to three years we will see the emergence of a new type of loyalty program designed to acknowledge and promote the travelers who are most carbon conscious – and this program will work seamlessly across all travel suppliers. Travelers will be given a badge status equal to their CO2E efficiency level per hour flown or night spent, and this badge will be shown on relevant items such as boarding cards, luggage tags, credit cards and loyalty programs.
Hopefully airlines will include these carbon warriors in their onboard announcements by stating how many top-tier carbon travel members have boarded a given flight and make it cool be to carbon conscious.
- Traveler behavior changes
Travelers will increasingly look for and consume services that have a direct reduction on their CO2E footprint. An example of such a service could be by reducing the amount of luggage via use of in‐destination clothing rental, use of electric vehicles whenever possible and, of course, selection of airlines with the highest blend of sustainable aviation fuel and most credible CO2E reporting.
While airports will remain a relatively static entity, travelers will increasingly support airports who are showing clear improvements on the CO2E front. This involves initiatives such as use of artificial intelligence software to ensure on-time departure from gate, electric pushback vehicles for aircraft movement and minimum taxiing time on the tarmac, power stations using renewable energy and efficient recycling of waste.
- Avoidance of short‐haul travel
One of the most interesting areas of development is the early trend of flight avoidance for domestic and short‐haul air travel. From a pure science-based perspective, flights of less than 500 miles are the ones generating the most CO2E per passenger hour flown.
That means travelers might start reducing use of short‐haul flights even before politicians potentially introduce new significant taxes or even volume limitations to motivate airlines to reduce those offerings, which literally could mean your current travel program might be challenged to eliminate flights of less than 90 minutes (or any other duration).
Are you capable of introducing such a rule, and what would the impact be on your overall program and business, measured as percent of flights by duration under 90 minutes?
How do you get started?
Whether you are a buyer or supplier, there are things you can do almost immediately, starting with creating a basic model for calculating your CO2E in 2020 if you are a buyer and establishing some credible data points for your customers to use if you are a supplier.
I hope this article have inspired you enough to at least consider getting into climate action – and welcome comments, feedback and thoughts in response. I will not stop traveling but will certainly be much more focused on reducing my own CO2E in the new decade.
About the author...
Johnny Thorsen is a travel tech entrepreneur and also the vice president of travel strategy and partnerships at Amex Digital Labs
; his views do not reflect those of his employer.