How your organisation’s travel policy can impact the environment

Following on from updating our equipment policy, we’ve recently also updated our travel policy at the Endless OS Foundation. A major part of this update was to introduce consideration of carbon emissions into the decision making for when and how to travel. I’d like to share what we came up with, as it should be broadly applicable to many other technology organisations, and I’m quite excited that people across the foundation worked to make these changes happen.

Why is this important?

For a technology company or organisation, travel is likely to be the first or second largest cause of emissions from the organisation. The obvious example in free software circles is the emissions from taking a flight to go to a conference, but actually in many cases the annual emissions from commuting to an office by car are comparable. Both can be reduced through an organisation’s policies.

In Endless’ case, the company is almost entirely remote and so commuting is not a significant cause of emissions. Pre-pandemic, air travel caused a bit under a third of the organisation’s emissions. So if there are things we can do to reduce our organisation’s air travel, that would make a significant difference to our overall emissions.

On an individual level, one return transatlantic flight (1.6tCO2e, which is 1.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, the unit of global warming potential) is more than half of someone’s annual target footprint which is 2.8tCO2e for 2030. So not taking a flight is one of the most impactful single actions you can take.

Similarly, commuting 10 miles a day by petrol car, for 227 working days per year, causes annual emissions of about 0.55tCO2e, which is also a significant proportion of a personal footprint when the aim is to limit global warming to 1.5°C. An organisation’s policies and incentives can impact people’s commuting decisions.

Once the emissions from a journey have been made, they can’t be un-made anywhere near as easily or quickly. Reducing carbon emissions now is more impactful than reducing them later.

How did we change the policy?

Previously, Endless’ travel policy was almost entirely focused around minimising financial cost by only allowing employees to choose the cheapest option for a particular travel plan. It had detailed sections on how to minimise cost for flights and private car use, and didn’t really consider other modes of transport.

In the updated policy, financial cost is still a big consideration, but it’s balanced against environmental cost. I’ve included some excerpts from the policy at the bottom of this post, which could be used as the basis for updating your policy.

Due to COVID, not much travel has happened since putting the policy in place, so I can’t share any comparisons of cost and environmental impact before and after applying the policy. The intention is that reducing the number of journeys made will balance slightly increased costs for taking lower-carbon transport modes on other journeys.

The main changes we made to it are:

  • Organise the policy so that it’s written in decision making order: sections cover necessity of travel, then travel planning and approval, then accommodation, then expenses.
  • Critically, the first step in the decision making process is “do you need to travel and what are the alternatives?”. If it’s decided that travel is needed, the next step is to look at how that trip could be combined with other useful activities (meetings or holiday) to amortise the impact of the travel.
  • We give an explicit priority order of modes of travel to choose:
    1. Rail (most preferred)
    2. Shared ground transport (coach/bus, shared taxi)
    3. Private ground transport (taxi, car rental, use of own vehicle)
    4. Air (least preferable)
  • And, following that, a series of rules for how to choose the mode of transport, which gives some guidance about how to balance environmental and financial cost (and other factors):

You should explore travel options in that order, only moving to the next option if any of the following conditions are true:

  • No such option exists for the journey in question
    • e.g. there is no rail/ground link between London and San Francisco
  • This mode of travel, or the duration of time spent traveling via such means, is regarded as unsafe or excessively uncomfortable at that location
    • For example, buses/coaches are considered to be uncomfortable or unsafe in certain countries/regions.
  • The journey is over 6 hours, and the following option reduces the journey time by 2× (or more)
    • We have a duty to protect company time, so you may (e.g.) opt for flying in cases where the travel time is significantly reduced.
    • Even if there is the opportunity for significant time savings, you are encouraged to consider the possibility of working while on the train, even if it works out to be a longer journey.
  • The cost is considered unreasonably/unexpectedly high, but the following option brings expenses within usual norms
    • The regular pricing of the mode of transport can be considered against the distance traveled. If disproportionately high, move onto other options.

In summary, we prefer rail and ground transportation to favor low-emissions, even if they are not the cheapest options. However, we also consider efficient use of company time, comfort, safety, and protecting ourselves from unreasonably high expenditure. You should explore all these options and considerations and discuss with your manager to make the final decision.

Your turn

I’d be interested to know whether others have similar travel policies, or have better or different ideas — or if you make changes to your travel policy as a result of reading this.

Policy excerpt

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.