Sustainable Travel

Navigating the Trillion-Dollar Skies: Managing Business Travel in the New Era of Sustainability

June 5, 2024

Corporate travel is a trillion-dollar industry.

And while all the indicators in our post-COVID world initially pointed to a slow return to pre-pandemic corporate travel, newly released forecasts from the Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) reveal the opposite is now true. Business travel has bounced back faster than expected, and spending is anticipated to surpass the pre-pandemic spending level of $1.4 trillion next year to grow to an estimated $1.8 trillion by 2027.

Business travel spend is enormously impactful to climate change because:

  1. Corporate travel generates roughly 40% of aviation industry revenues.
  2. Air travel may represent up to 27% of GHG emissions by 2050.
  3. 4 in 10 UK companies (and one-third of U.S. companies) need to reduce travel per employee by more than 20% to meet their 2030 sustainability targets.

Given this reality, if business travel spending will soon reach unprecedented levels, how do companies prioritize sustainability and stay on track to achieve their net zero goals while navigating the challenges presented by the role travel plays in a business’ bottom-line success?

Bar chart of total global business travel spend (actuals and forecasts) in US dollars annually for calendar years 2019 through 2027. Source is GBTA and Rockport Analytics

Business Travel Today

Business travel has always been a vital part of corporate business. Whether for new market launches, fostering client or partner relationships, exploring new business opportunities, attending events, or conducting research and development, corporate travel is driven by various business objectives and operational needs across industries, organizations, and departments.

In our post-COVID world, corporate travel has also taken on a new definition that includes navigating the remote and hybrid work environments that have blurred the lines between business travel and commuting. It's not uncommon to see corporate travel teams tasked with developing commuter programs and partnering with HR, transportation, and real estate teams to shape employee mobility strategies. With this shift in the corporate travel ecosystem, reducing emissions from corporate air travel (which makes up 90% of business travel emissions) without reducing external and internal business objectives can feel like walking a tightrope.

While we see Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as a critical part of the long-term solution to decarbonization, most recognize that the limited supply, high costs and lack of immediately available infrastructure to support SAF means we’ll likely need to be patient for SAF to scale to support the market holistically.

So, how will companies deliver key business outcomes while hitting their emissions goals, especially those committed to science-based targets?

How Leading Companies Solve the Emissions Challenge

In acknowledging that business travel spending will soon reach unprecedented levels, we can also assume that corporate travel will continue to be part of business ahead. However, there is a huge opportunity to be more thoughtful and strategic in how you travel.

Since co-founding Clarasight in 2021, I've had the opportunity to work with some of the world's leading enterprises on their decarbonization efforts, and it has given our team a unique view into what best-in-class businesses are doing to balance sustainability initiatives with business outcomes.

Reducing emissions from business travel requires doing these three things well:

  1. Define what good travel looks like. Travel policies alone cannot solve the emissions problem.  Organizations and leaders need a way to understand their business travel’s true impact and value. Research from tClara found that low-value trips can be predicted in advance with roughly 75% accuracy. However, determining a “good” or “necessary” business trip depends on the team, department, and business function. It’s not one size fits all.

    One way to discern good travel from unnecessary travel is through short pre- and post-trip assessment surveys. Asking employees pre-trip questions like “What’s the specific goal of this trip?” and “What’s the expected ROI of this trip?” followed by post-trip questions such as, “Did you meet your business objectives?” and “How valuable was this trip?” can provide contextual data to develop trip health scores that enable you to predict future outcomes, drive better travel decisions and enable team-specific, custom targets rather than one-size-fits-all policies.
  2. Surface progress to targets for team leaders. Driving down business travel emissions requires the centralization of disparate travel data to better measure, plan and predict the environmental impact of travel to support real-time decision making. Leveraging data analytics to identify travel patterns and opportunities for optimization helps you make informed decisions about travel routes, timing, and modes of transportation.

    The ability to go down to the team and individual level to identify which travel choices are leading to the most significant drivers of emissions enables leaders to manage their carbon budgets better while empowering their people to make the right decisions on behalf of the business.
  3. Model in-year scenarios to drive decisions. Companies should aspire to manage their carbon emissions similarly to how they manage financials - with a depth of understanding that far exceeds the standard once-a-year retrospective report, and in collaboration with carbon accounting, works to provide data on the immediate potential impact of real-time decisions.

    Business travel-specific data, analytics, planning and reporting tools enable organizations to focus sustainability efforts in areas with the greatest impact. By leveraging predictive modeling to forecast future travel emissions based on historical data and projected travel plans, companies can significantly enhance the expected success of team, department, and individual targets. Scenario modeling further surfaces the financial impact and potential emissions savings of different transportation options, and customizable “what if” scenarios provide visibility into emissions and budget impacts of in-year decisions and actions.

    Harnessing the power of consolidated, contextualized data to perform continuous rather than annual analysis and reporting enables companies to measure progress, identify opportunities for improvement, and ultimately take a more business-centric approach to achieving net-zero emissions goals.

At Clarasight, we provide companies with a comprehensive software platform that enables companies to rapidly and successfully deploy all three of the critical capabilities outlined above. Within any business where travel is a significant driver of costs, emissions or culture, it is critical that you have the tools to forge a partnership between your travel, sustainability and core business teams.

Illustrative heat map chart from Climate Club's software showing top emission drivers across departments

By defining and quantifying what good travel looks like, surfacing progress to targets for team leaders and modeling in-year scenarios to drive decisions, companies can strategically plan and manage travel so that every employee can focus on delivering business outcomes while achieving sustainability goals.

The Path Forward to Net Zero Success

A 2022 report by Accenture revealed 93% of companies will miss their emissions targets unless they accelerate progress on reduction. Whether motivated by public commitments, brand reputation or cost reductions, moving the needle requires a new breed of sustainability intelligence that is truly actionable.

It is clear that the pathway to net zero now requires every company to activate its most valuable asset - its people. To truly reduce emissions and reach net zero targets, companies must close the gap between climate-related intentions and actions across all levels of the organization.

By removing data silos, setting clear emission reduction targets specific to teams, and consistently tracking the business value and sustainability impact created from each trip, companies can better understand the true implications of business travel to build real-time intelligence that will allow them to thrive in achieving goals for their customers, partners, people and planet.


This article was originally published in the MCJ Collective Newsletter on September 12, 2023.

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