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The Challenge to Fly Sustainably

A broad set of stakeholders is focusing attention on the climate change impact of air travel. In the face of regulatory uncertainty, businesses will benefit from modifying their behaviors and leading the way.

The impact of air travel on greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) and climate change is receiving increasing scrutiny, especially in Europe — the Air Transport Action Group reports that emissions from air travel account for approximately 2 percent of global GHGs. Air travel is increasing globally, and growth in air travel will lead to greater emissions; the International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that by 2020, aviation emissions will be 70 percent higher than they were in 2005.

Airlines are clearly being affected by the focus on aircraft emissions and their contributions to climate change. The French government recently announced a new eco-tax on airlines for all flights from airports in France. While the tax may affect the financial performance of airlines and cause customers to pay more, the tax was adopted in response to the growing attention to the role that air travel plays in climate change. Taking this reputational challenge head on, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines recently launched a “Fly Responsibly” advertising campaign, urging customers to, among other things, consider alternative means of transport for short trips. KLM’s website provides information on what the airline is doing, what the industry can do, and what its customers can do to make flying more sustainable.

The focus on aircraft emissions has implications that extend well beyond the airline industry. Almost all businesses use air transportation to some extent, and this contributes to carbon emissions, climate change, and reputational risk. Forbes writer Michael Goldstein has noted a transformation from the glamorous image of the “jet set” to today’s “flight shaming” by environmental activists. While air travel may be a small percentage of many companies’ total GHGs, the attention of activists and the public visibility of air travel create an environment where corporate social responsibility reputations could be challenged.

Technology offers some options for businesses looking to reduce employee air travel. Video conferences can be a substitute for face-to-face meetings that require travel, providing effective means of holding meetings, sharing information, and building personal relationships. Combining means of transportation can also help. Long-haul flights can be used in combination with trains and cars for shorter trips. Corporate policies mandating more coach versus business class travel also reduce the emissions per person. Even packing lighter can save on emissions. Finally, purchasing carbon offsets can compensate for some air travel emissions.

The old accounting adage that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and the corollary that what you measure you will manage, may be apropos when it comes to air travel emissions. The specific metrics and approaches to measuring and controlling many environmental impacts vary by industry and geographic location. A variety of calculators that estimate the GHGs per air passenger are available online, including the ICAO calculator; but a simple metric for air travel emissions could be applied by all companies.

By measuring and accounting for emissions, business units can assess the climate impact of their air travel, incentivize reductions in air travel emissions, and disclose this information publicly to build an image for transparency and environmental responsibility. For example, adding the cost of emission offsets to travel budgets could be an effective means of providing incentives for business units to evaluate the cost-benefit trade-offs of travel. While simple metrics such as those provided in air emission calculators may be helpful, companies may also need to develop new metrics to balance other performance objectives with reduced air travel emissions; focusing on air travel emissions without considering other business objectives could lead to suboptimal travel decisions.

Laws and public policies have played a role in many areas of environmental performance, and aircraft emissions and the environmental impact of air travel may come under increased regulation and taxation. Climate change is a high-profile social issue, and a broad set of stakeholders are currently focusing attention on the climate change impact of air travel. In the face of regulatory uncertainty, businesses may benefit from modifying their behaviors and leading the way. Entities that have commitments to and/or reputations for social and environmental responsibility are especially likely to find themselves being challenged to explain their air travel decisions, in terms of climate change impact.

This challenge also creates opportunities for leadership in a high-profile emerging issue, increased internal environmental awareness and burnished external environmental reputations. Fortunately, there are many opportunities for businesses to design and communicate metrics that will help answer stakeholder questions and make decisions that support sustainable flying.