Sustainability has entered our lexicon and consciousness as an important concept since the beginning of this decade. It appears we are in search of quick answers to balance our never ending business and personal needs against the needs of the environment in which we live. In the UK Higher Education sector, the drive for sustainable travel has been going on for many years with progress across the sector at different stages, depending on who you talk to. It has taken the global pandemic to get the focus and attention it now enjoys. Clarity Travel’s Patrick Oniyelu and Greengage Solutions’ Andrew Perolls provide insights into where the UK academic sector is on its journey towards travel sustainability and what still needs to be done.

Clarity (the SUPC travel framework’s number 1-ranked provider), SUPC and sustainability experts Greengage Solutions hosted a well-attended webinar for travel stakeholders in the UK Higher Education sector recently to explore attitudes and activities towards travel sustainability. During the session the panellists sought to check the pulse on universities’ travel sustainability activity. Here, we share the key themes of our session and attendee feedback, and our suggested actions for how to support a more sustainable travel programme.

Carbon Reduction Plans: Where Does Your University Sit?

We recognise that universities come in an array of shapes and sizes – both in terms of their financial positions and student-to-staff ratios. Our attendees represented over 30 universities and colleges and wide range of university mission groups.  We asked attendees two questions:

  • Does your organisation have a specific target to achieve net zero carbon emissions?
  • Does your institution have a sustainability strategy and carbon reduction plan, which considers business travel?

Over 85% responded “yes” to the first question. This is hugely positive and demonstrates that universities are ahead of the curve when it comes to embracing the need to reduce carbon emissions. With 49% indicating “yes” to the second question, however, it does demonstrate a need to find practical ways of aligning business travel to the net zero framework.

Action: Know Where You Are Before You Decide Where You Are Going

As a business, Clarity is on track to achieve net zero emissions by 2030. We got started by working with Greengage Solutions who conducted an audit of our sustainable processes and practices through extensive data collection and interviews. This exercise provided a platform from which Greengage could advise on setting CO2 targets and a programme to reduce our emissions.

This should be the first step to set your net zero target.

Working with an independent auditor helps define where you are currently and identifies what needs to be done to get you to net zero. Remember, net ‘zero carbon emissions’ means more than just offsetting travel carbon emissions. It covers every aspect of your business of which travel activities will be a part.

A sustainably focused business travel programme requires careful and consistent collaboration between your travel service provider and the various stakeholder groups within your institution. By setting your travel emissions benchmark in conjunction with your sustainability auditor you will establish a basis to achieve your emission reduction objectives and at the same time define what needs to be done, when and by whom.

Sustainable Travel Policies: Are They More Than Just Words?

We wanted to know how robust Higher Education sector policies were when it comes to including clear guidance on the ‘how’ of sustainable travel.  So, we asked our attendees the following:

  • Have you changed your travel policy to drive better sustainable buying?

Seventy-one percent of respondents said their university hadn’t, or that they weren’t sure if they had. This highlights the gap between great intentions and knowing where and how to get started. We experienced the same at Clarity, hence the relationship with Greengage.

There is so much to learn about sustainability in the context of balancing the need to travel while following a carbon reduction strategy. Historically, many institutions included somewhat vague statements in their travel policies about the need to keep travel volumes to a minimum, with little or no support on how to achieve it.  The good news is that we are seeing significant changes with some institutions implementing bold programmes to cut travel related emissions.

The results also speak to challenges with internal communications – you can have an excellent sustainable travel policy, but if your travellers don’t know about it, it’s not going to have any impact.

Action: Include Practical Guidance to Make Your Sustainable Travel Policy More Meaningful

While creating an impactful sustainable travel policy can be a challenge, here are some tips worth considering:

  • Your travel policy should actively discourage short haul trips altogether and encourage video calls.
  • You can develop a decision hierarchy that provides clear guidance on when certain types of travel are permissible.
  • Point-of-sale message prompts will remind bookers of the need to consider video conference as opposed to booking travel.
  • If such travel must happen, ensure your policy has an approval process in place to capture reasons why a video call won’t work.
  • Incentivise the use of cleaner modes of transportation such as trains, biofuel aircraft and electric vehicle rentals.
  • Use carbon reporting data to allocate budgets at an individual, departmental or institutional level, making people accountable for their carbon budget. Such an approach will focus the minds of bookers to carefully consider their travel options before they ‘draw down’ on their carbon credits each time they plan to travel.

Hearts and Minds: Are Universities Making the Cultural Change to Support Sustainable Travel?

We wanted to get a sense of how the ‘walk’ is aligning with the ‘talk’ at universities across the UK, so we asked attendees:

  • Will your travellers or bookers select a more sustainable option, even if it could cost more money?

Only 10% of respondents said yes but, interestingly, 66% were not sure. This suggests that most were perhaps not altogether averse to the idea, provided the benefits can be quantified.

But therein lies the conundrum. The effects of carbon reduction on climate change are very real but we won’t feel the benefits for a few years yet. For certain, any organisation committed to net zero carbon will only achieve it by making a cultural shift, doing things differently and by challenging existing behaviours.

Let’s be clear, sustainability in the context of travel often comes with a price tag and travel buyers should be conscious of this. A handful of airline carriers have started offering biofuel options; however, these come at a higher cost than regular aviation fuel, just as renting or buying an electric car is more expensive than one powered by petrol. With demand for cleaner modes of travel on the rise, the expectation is that manufacturing costs will drop to make them a more affordable means of transport for business travellers.

A key challenge for university staff will be advocate for, and demonstrate the value of, sustainable travel in both the short and long terms. Getting frequent travellers on board and aligned with a university’s values-based ethos will be crucial.

Action: Prioritise Long-Term Values-Based Decisions on Travel

We encourage promoting the booking of environmentally cleaner modes of travel in your policies even if they come at a higher price, such as:

  1. Rail services for short domestic trips here and abroad
  2. Book airlines with fuel efficient aircraft or that use biofuel
  3. Rent electric or hybrid cars instead of petrol/diesel
  4. Book hotels with verified low carbon emissions

By doing this we collectively help reduce the cost of running these cleaner modes of transport and make them more affordable in the short to medium term for business travellers, while reducing our carbon footprint at the same time.

Part of the work to prioritise values-based decision-making will be in the engagement and communication with staff members.  Coming together as teams to discuss options and challenges associated with new policies will support staff-led buy-in and will, ultimately, mean better adherence than simply imposing new rules.

Data: Do Universities Have the Data They Need for Decision-Making?

Our final question to our audience was about monitoring your carbon data and what you do with it:

What is more important for your organisation?

  1. Carbon reporting drilled down to the individual department or traveller level or:
  2. CO2 data at point of sale

Fifty-nine percent opted for A and 41% chose B.

Action: Make Data and Transparent Reporting a Top Priority

We recommend both options as CO2 reporting should be readily available to travel managers at all levels for analysis. Data at point of sale will help bookers to consider their travel options based on carbon emissions (as well as cost). The “visual guilt” concept drives bookers to take both factors into consideration.

Travel emission reports should be available down to individual traveller level, giving managers the ability to set travel carbon reduction plans based on quantifiable benchmarks. That way progress can be tracked and reported accurately.

Final Thoughts

Achieving net zero will for the foreseeable future be an exercise of discovery for most business travel practitioners, buyers and consumers, but as the results and analysis from our polling indicates the best way to achieve this is to support each other. Doing nothing is not an option. As a TMC on track to achieve net zero by 2030 we are happy to share our experience with all travel stakeholders.

For more information or to have a discussion about your university’s sustainable travel plan, contact Clarity Business Development Manager Patrick Oniyelu or SUPC Head of Category Management Jayne Thorn.

Clarity Travel will be exhibiting at the in-person LUPC and SUPC Annual Conference on 8th June 2022 on stand 18. If you would like to meet Clarity and learn more about how they can help you, then you can register for the conference here.