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Business Travel

Business travel is often one of the last carbon impacts to be evaluated for research campus climate action plans, and it can be surprisingly large. At Cornell University, for example, business air travel generated 27,000 tons of carbon dioxide in 2008, accounting for 8.5% of the Cornell carbon footprint. This is roughly equal to the impact of daily commuting to and from campus.

The following outlines resources and opportunities for research campuses to manage business travel within climate action plans:

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Business Travel Options

Research campuses are now beginning to address the climate impact of business travel. Several options have emerged to reduce and/or offset greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to business travel. These options include:

  • Teleconferencing: Teleconferencing and telepresence systems allow professionals to meet face to face virtually. This technology is evolving rapidly; some systems offer total immersion into high-definition telepresence meetings (see example project below).

    In addition to environmental benefits, teleconference equipment and policies often yield a quick return by avoiding air travel and hotel costs.

  • Webinars: Travel associated with attending conferences and training can often be avoided through webinars and other on-line sources. Webinars avoid travel-related GHG emissions and reduce the cost and time associated with conference attendance. Webinars often attract participants who would not otherwise be able to travel for a conference.

  • Carbon offsets: Purchasing carbon offsets to counter GHG emissions related to business travel offers a variety of options. For example, major airlines provide offset programs such as United Airlines Carbon Offset Program and Delta Airlines Conservation Fund when customers purchase tickets.

  • Sustainable travel services: Travel and hospitality providers are typically responsive to customer requests. As a result, some travel and vacation services, such as British Airways have implemented sustainability programs.

Event planners can also offset the climate impact of conferences and training events. The National Recycling Coalition implemented a green meeting policy for its Annual Congress & Exposition and other events.

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Considerations for Business Travel

Research campuses should evaluate the following before assessing and implementing sustainable business travel programs:

Is sustainable business travel right for your campus?
  • Do staffs travel frequently for business?
  • Do they regularly attend training and conferences out of town?
  • Do you partner with peer institutions or consultants?
  • Do you have a limited travel budget?

Ongoing Business Travel

Business travel is a fact of life for modern businesses and most research campuses. However, as sustainability concerns rise and budget allocations fall, teleconferencing and telepresence solutions are becoming more and more popular. Evaluate what trips necessitate face-to-face interaction and work to establish virtual meetings for the rest.

Training and Conferences

Maintaining technical skills and certifications is essential for research staff. National and international conferences have traditionally been the best medium for training. Web-based training, however, is gaining popularity, allowing technical staff to remain current with less climate impact and time spent away from campus.

Partnerships with Peer Institutions and Consultants

When collaborating with partnering institutions and consultants, teleconferencing and telepresence systems offer a viable solution to reduce climate impacts on both ends. Face-to-face communication often occurs more frequently if a virtual option is available.

Limited Travel Budgets

Travel budgets are on the downswing, opening a door for teleconferencing. Hardware costs are typically offset by avoided travel expenses, generating a quick return on investment.

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Leading Example: NREL Telepresence

Photo of three people holding a teleconference.  They are seated at a table and talking to three other individuals via a panel of three video screens.

NREL researchers meet face-to-face with collaborators from across the country using high-definition telepresence technology.
Credit: Jennifer Josey

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, installed a telepresence teleconferencing system in summer 2009. The facility consists of four high-definition liquid crystal displays (HD-LCD) located at eye level. A fourth is located beneath the middle HD-LCD.

This technology allows teleconference meeting participants to see and hear each other as if they were all in the same room. Of course, the participants at the other end must also be set up with similar, sophisticated audio-visual equipment.

Users of these systems report that they are superior to the "talking heads" experience of older video conferencing technologies because participants experience the human factors of the meeting, including eye contact, body language, etc. As a result and because of its potential to reduce travel costs, Telepresence is being rapidly accepted by U.S. businesses.

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The resources below outline sustainable business travel strategies.

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