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The Road to Net Zero: Changing travel patterns to decarbonize business travel

December 02, 2022


By Siddharth Singh
Director (APAC), Global Corporate Communications, CWT

The recently concluded COP27 summit in Egypt once again brought into focus the urgency of making travel—which accounts for an estimated 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions—more sustainable. A report published by the UK-based Travel Foundation described current strategies that rely solely on carbon offsetting, technological efficiencies, and biofuels are “woefully inadequate”, warning that such measures alone would fail to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

Changes to purchase behaviors and travel patterns will be key to accomplishing decarbonization. This entails giving travelers relevant information, like the carbon footprint of a flight or hotel stay, at the point of booking. It also means reducing the environmental impact of certain types of trips that generate the most carbon emissions. For example, the Travel Foundation’s research suggests that long-distance trips are “by far, the most polluting”, and need to be capped at 2019 levels. According to the study, these comprised 2% of all trips and 19% of total travel emissions in 2019 – but at the current growth rate, they will account for 4% of trips and 41% of travel emissions by 2050.

One way to limit the proliferation of long-haul trips is for travelers to consider “trip-batching”, which entails visiting multiple destinations in a single trip. Interestingly, this trend appears to have gained momentum during the pandemic. Complicated and expensive covid testing and quarantine requirements prompted travelers to visit multiple cities in one go to make the trip worth the cost and hassle. 

CWT’s booking data shows that in 2019, there was an almost even split between simple, point-to-point trips and itineraries with multiple stops – but, in 2021, more than two-thirds of business trips (68%) were multi-destination. While the proportion of multi-city trips has dropped to 56% in 2022 as travel restrictions have been lifted, it still remains above pre-pandemic levels.  

“With sustainability becoming a bigger priority, there’s a good chance we’ll continue to see more multi-destination trips than we did pre-pandemic,” says Nick Vournakis, CWT’s Chief Customer Officer. “The idea of carbon budgets, similar to spend budgets, is gaining traction. It's very conceivable that the more progressive corporates who are really leaning into this will have clear carbon budgets by 2024. So, a traveler based in New York who is planning meetings in London, Paris, and Amsterdam, and now has to be very judicious with their carbon emissions, may look to combine those meetings into a single trip and do some of that travel by train or car, instead of flying back and forth.”

The booking data also reveals a decline in one-day trips. Globally, one-day trips have recovered slightly less than three-quarters relative to all domestic trips, following the pandemic. This trend has been more pronounced in the United States and Europe, where same-day returns have only recovered by around half to two-thirds as much as all domestic and continental trips. 

As Akshay Kapoor, CWT’s Head of Sales for Asia Pacific, explains: “These trips were seen as a way to reduce travel budgets as you could save on the hotel cost. But the growing emphasis on sustainability and employee wellbeing has resulted in some of these being replaced by online meetings, with travelers taking fewer and longer trips instead.”

On the flipside, new categories of business trips are emerging. “The shift towards flexible working, for example, is leading some companies to organize regular internal meetings and retreats to boost collaboration and ensure face time for their increasingly dispersed teams,” adds Kapoor. 

Even so, does achieving our collective net zero ambitions necessitate less globetrotting altogether?

“Without a doubt,” says Vournakis. “Measures such as choosing airlines that use more sustainable aviation fuel or booking greener hotels will help reduce the carbon footprint of business travel to a certain extent—and these are definitely a step in the right direction. But, at the end of the day, if you want to make real progress towards carbon neutrality, you will have to travel less and take fewer business trips. In this new paradigm, an important part of CWT’s role is to help our customers understand the value of different business trips so they can make informed decisions.”