March 1, 2024

Starting point

In your quest for sustainable business travel, don’t get bogged down by the detail; for now just work with what you’ve got, says Gill Upton

If there were any doubt whether sustainability is high on corporate agendas, a survey by ITM in early April found 82% of travel buyers say business travel is now part of their organisation’s net zero roadmap. 

Being able to source accurate, granular and standardised emissions data, carbon reporting and harmonising the metrics is business travel’s holy grail but it is largely absent from our industry’s eco system.

However, this should not be preventing corporates from starting their sustainability journey and reducing carbon emissions. The spectre of reputational damage is the alternative if nothing is done.

Legislation will also drive companies to act, the latest being the EU’s CSRD policy, which forces large organisations to report emissions across their entire value chain. Detailed questions in RFPS also mean companies must take action.

“You can debate all day long which calculators to use and you can find flaws in any one of them”

But inertia has set in in some quarters of the travel buyer community.

”When I talk to corporate buyers they seem to be stuck in a valley between identifying sustainability as a corporate priority and knowing what to do about it,” says Guy Snelgar, Global Business Travel Director The Advantage Partnership.

”It’s not because of lack of will but because it’s so big,” he adds.

Baby steps are key and the starting point is carbon measurement. Data is nowhere near 100% perfect and Snelgar stresses that ”you can debate all day long which calculators to use and you can find flaws in any one of them,” but advises corporates to persist and go with what they’ve got.

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Mike Corbett, Founder and Director of Thrust Carbon, adds: “Choose a data point and stick with it, so it’s consistent and you can still make good decisions.”

Many corporates have done just that, relying heavily on their TMC to calculate carbon usage across rail, hotels, cars and air from historic data.

Aggregating data from multiple sources improves accuracy and once you arrive at a figure the next steps are to set carbon reduction targets or instigate carbon budgets to run alongside travel budgets. Then, update policies, tighten pre-trip approvals, add CO² filtering in the booking tool so the message gets to travellers at point of sale, reward employees for doing the right thing, green the supply chain and launch communication campaigns to influence traveller behaviour.


None of those steps are easy. With air, for example, TMCs have partnered with third party carbon measurement and offset companies such as Thrust Carbon, CHOOSE and Trees4Travel to augment what is imperfect Defra and ICAO data.

“How do we do with hotels what we’ve done with air? The data is very inconsistent”

Defra and ICAO emissions data has to be enhanced by aircraft type, distance, class of travel, percentage of freight, configuration and passenger load factor. 

Even that would not be 100% accurate and Dr Wendy Buckley, Client Director at Carbon Footprint, is waiting for particular granular data. “My hope for the near future is that we will see an exhaustive list of published CO² per passenger km for all airlines and that buyers will then have a choice of the lowest emission airline available for the route available,” she says. ”In the meantime,  is consolidating publicly available data on this.” 

Staying sustainable

Obtaining specific numbers from the accommodation sector is challenging because the industry and stakeholder base is so fragmented. Averages are generally used and frustrations run high. One buyer said: “How do we do with hotels what we’ve done with air? The data is very inconsistent. We need accreditation and reporting and to be able to trust that it’s accurate.” 

One solution comes from the Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (SHA). The combination of industry fragmentation and hotels not recognising the business case are why this sector is lagging behind, says Anna Dacam, Environment Programme Manager. 

“There is a huge focus on data capture and a huge influx in requests but hotels are often getting overwhelmed by it,” she adds. The capex involved is significant as it’s far easier to build a green hotel than it is to retro-fit an old one. 

“There is no silver bullet but a silver bucket of these three solutions, of different levers to be used at different times”

Nonetheless, the SHA website provides free tools for hotels to counteract inertia, including how to build a business case, how to promote their actions to their corporate clients and a step-by-step guide in the document ‘The Pathway to Net Positive Hospitality’.

For buyers the HCMI (Hotel Carbon Measurement Initiative) and a water equivalent (HWMI) provide a global comparative matrix, plus there is a list of questions for buyers to ask to check a hotel’s sustainable status. Trailblazers include Hilton’s Light Stay, Soneva and Iberostar. Dacam believes that if enough hotels utilise the HCMI and HWMI data sets it will resolve the data capture issue. 

The Cornell Benchmarking Index is another useful source of anonymised data by location, service levels and other filters.

Easy wins for hotels include measures such as improved insulation, LED lightbulbs, raising A/C temperatures by 1% or installing a heat pump or heat recovery system.

The right signal

The good news is that availability of accurate and consistent rail data should be available before the year is out, the result of the Rail Delivery Group’s “ground-breaking” pan-industry research in 2022 called the Green Travel Pledge (GTP).

“Many buyers are using Defra but research showed additional data points were required to be able to validate it,” says Leigh Percy, Business Travel Lead Interim RGD.

GTP will result in granular data being made available across all rail operators by engine type, fuel type, distance, number of carriages, load factor by class, time of travel and more.

“This isn’t about a ‘them and us’ approach. It needs to be a collaborative approach”

Rail could and should be the big winner in the modal shift from air and car but the recent questionable performance of some TOCs leaves a question mark over whether capacity and punctuality will keep pace with increased demand. 

Nonetheless, a single train removes up to 500 cars off the road and if a car is the only option then electric and hybrid is the green way to go for fleet, rental and car-sharing.

Avis, for example, provides carbon footprint calculations, a carbon offset programme, over 30,000 hybrid and electric low-emission vehicles that are mostly less than 18 months old and fuel efficient. But a spokesperson warns “the road to electrification rests on a foundation of charging infrastructure”.

United front

Greening the supply chain is the hardest of all the steps. Your TMC can check suppliers’ green credentials and platforms such as Tripism can filter sustainable suppliers, but the biggest influence will be the corporate RFP. ESG has become an essential component of RFPs and if your supplier doesn’t cut it, it could be deleted from the programme and that action will help to drive change.

However, ITM CEO Scott Davies says: “It’s not a case of buyers putting pressure on the supply chain; this isn’t about a ‘them and us’ approach. It needs to be a collaborative approach.”

Scott advises buyers to start by showing suppliers the internal metrics they are working to and the way that their organisation audits sustainable travel in the context of ESG.

“It’s important for buyers to bring suppliers into the conversation and have mutual understanding,” he says. He also believes that those suppliers genuinely heading towards net zero will be easier for corporates to buy from. 

To be fair, no supplier is standing still; it’s just taking time. Airlines are busy minimising energy, changing from fossil fuels to SAF/green hydrogen-powered fuel and using carbon removal technologies.

“There is no silver bullet but a silver bucket of these three solutions, of different levers to be used at different times,” says Lahiru Ranasinghe, easyJet Sustainability Manager.

“We are going to stop defending and get on the front foot. Travel is a power for good”

Reducing energy means fleet renewal, operational efficiencies and airspace modernisation. New aircraft bring improved fuel efficiencies but extended delivery dates are hampering progress, while the target of 10% improvement over the European skies is entirely reliant on action by national governments.

The usage of fossil fuel alternatives such as SAF is slowed by availability issues and regulated quotas on fuel blend, while carbon-free green hydrogen-powered aircraft are in testing stage only. EasyJet has partnered with Rolls Royce to produce a business jet fuelled by green hydrogen.

On a macro level, industry bodies have been galvanising the industry: ITM with its Sustainable Task Force creating an output of hints, tips and opportunities, and the BTA with Planet Plan, a working group across members and partners to make the industry work together. The GBTA and VDA in Germany have been echoing these efforts.

All are doing their best to negate the perception that travel is a pariah when it comes to carbon emissions. “We are going to stop defending and get on the front foot. Travel is a power for good,” says BTA CEO Clive Wratten.  

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