Business travel is Big Tech’s next climate challenge

Tech companies are waking up to the dangers business flights pose to the climate. Now, they’re trying to help employees figure out how to choose modes of travel that emit less carbon pollution.

An airplane in flight seen from the front.

Despite the fact that companies are focused more on cutting carbon, few have specific guidelines for individual employees on how to choose flights.

Photo: Gary Lopater via Unsplash

There’s no way around it: Business flights are frying the planet.

About 90% of business travel carbon emissions come from flying, and just 1% of travelers — many of whom fly for work — are responsible for 50% of all air travel carbon pollution. As the tech industry continues to make sweeping net zero pledges, actually getting there will require making smarter choices when it comes to flying.

Some companies are trying to incentivize their employees who travel to think twice about booking that business class ticket — or any ticket at all.

Take the case of Salesforce, which has one of the more robust climate action plans out there. One of the features of its path to net zero is executive accountability, or tying a portion of variable pay for senior leaders to meeting ESG goals. Among those goals is reducing air travel emissions. How that is done, however, is up to individual business units, according to Senior Director of Sustainability Max Scher.

Since the onus is on individual teams, that means employees need to be educated on how they can track and calculate their own business travel emissions. To do that, the company uses its own greenhouse gas emissions inventory analytics platform, Net Zero Cloud, which helps measure progress towards the overall net zero goal, as well as corporate travel emissions. The company also has an internal travel booking tool that recommends the lowest-emissions mode of travel when it makes sense. For example, it’s much less carbon intensive to travel by rail than car (to say nothing of a flight), making Amtrak the most climate-friendly way to get from New York to Washington, DC. (It’s also arguably the most comfortable mode of transit, too.)

Luckily for corporate travelers who don’t have Salesforce’s proprietary software, a new crop of tools has popped up in the last year to help travelers compare the carbon emissions of different flight itineraries before booking their flights. Google Flights, Skyscanner, Kayak and Lite.Flights all recently released filtering tools aimed at providing more transparency into how different flights compare when it comes to their climate impact.

But — and here’s a big “but” — do travelers actually use these tools when they’re at their disposal? And would they choose the lower-emitting flight, even if it’s more expensive and less convenient? For corporate travelers, the answer is more likely to be “yes,” according to Sola Zheng, a researcher on the International Council on Clean Transportation’s aviation program team. People are “more lenient about costs,” Zheng pointed out, when the flight is being charged to a corporate card, rather than their own.

With more companies starting to implement emissions targets and sustainability-minded travel policies, employees might be willing to spend a little more to cut down their travel emissions. Besides Salesforce, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Intel are among the big public tech companies that have started linking a portion of executive compensation to meeting sustainability targets.

Still, despite the fact that companies are focused more on cutting carbon, few have specific guidelines for individual employees on how to choose flights. They might suggest that employees pick the lower-emitting itinerary, but they’re not forcing them to. That might very well change as ESG standards continue to evolve, but for now, it’s up to individuals to make the right decision. And the jury's still out on if they do.

Salesforce, for example, hasn’t gathered data on whether or not employees actually choose rail over air when they can, or elect a less convenient, more expensive flight itinerary in service of sustainability. That being said, according to Scher, the company has surpassed its goal of cutting business travel emissions intensity (that is, emissions per dollar of revenue) by 50% relative to 2019. But he credits that more to a COVID-related reduction in travel, rather than intentional carbon-cutting efforts.

“Our testing so far has found that when users can see the carbon dioxide impact of their flight options, they’re more likely to avoid flights with higher emissions,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an email to Protocol. The caveat there, though, is that research from Zheng and the ICCT found that lower-emitting flights typically aren’t that much more expensive than higher-emitting ones and in many cases are even cheaper. That means it’s nearly impossible to disentangle whether it’s cost, emissions or a combination of both driving those decisions.

Matthias Keller is the chief scientist and SVP of Technology at Kayak. He told Protocol that, although the company doesn’t have “hard data” on how people use the site’s carbon emissions filter tool, the reason the travel search site released the feature in the first place was because of a survey it conducted that found people want to travel more sustainably, but they don’t know how. The filter was an attempt to bridge that knowledge gap. With the “whole push towards ESG in public markets, demand is just going to build for these sorts of tools,” he said.

Despite the lack of publicly available usage data, two recent analyses point to the fact that people really are willing to pay more for lower-emitting flights, to a certain extent. One survey of 450 University of California, Davis, employees found that they were willing to pay more for lower-emissions flights at a rate of about $200 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent — a metric that standardizes all greenhouse gases to carbon dioxide — saved. The U.K. Civil Aviation Authority conducted a survey of the general public in 2021 that found that 33% of consumers would pay more for a flight ticket to reduce their environmental impact.

Sustainability may be factoring more into people’s purchasing decisions, but convenience and price still reign supreme — even for people who focus on cleaning up travel for a living. “I am also guilty of being a member of frequent flyer programs,” Zheng said.

“How do you make them break loyalty? That’s a tricky one,” admitted Christian Nolle, the creator of Lite.Flights, who also counts himself as a member of an airline loyalty program.

For those who have to travel for business, there are a number of factors to consider if low-carbon flight tools aren't available. Older aircrafts emit more carbon than newer models. Direct flights are also more efficient than ones with layovers because takeoff and landing are the most carbon-intensive parts of a flight.

The more tools that exist for people to compare flights by emissions and see the laggards in the industry, the more the public can put pressure on airlines to upgrade their fleets.

There are other solutions waiting in the wings as well. Alternative jet fuels are in the “early commercialization stage,” but “if the industry is pushing for it, everything can happen tomorrow,” Zheng said. She compared it to electric vehicles; things take off “when people who are more well off are willing to pay more for these more sustainable products.” That can also eventually help bring costs down for everyone, though there are concerns about at least some of the sustainable aviation fuel startups delivering on their promise at the speed and scale needed.

That pressure is already building. Scher pointed out that Salesforce has committed to replacing 5% of its annual conventional jet fuel with low- or no-carbon emissions jet fuel as part of the First Movers Coalition. The company also recently joined the United Eco-Skies Alliance to help contribute towards the purchase of about 7 million gallons of sustainable aviation fuels. The intent is “to hopefully get this product further commercialized” and drive down costs, he said.

Ultimately, companies that care about sustainability (which at this point should be all of them) have the power to play a significant role in driving more sustainable air travel practices. By shining a light on air travel emissions, they’re turning up the heat on airlines to modernize their fleets and invest in more alternative fuels. After all, individual choice can only move the needle so far; the bulk of carbon emissions and the responsibility to cut them lie with the large corporate entities who are their source.


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