Grounding Travel Policies in Organisations

by | 08 Jul 2020 | Webinar

Reducing air travel is crucial, because of its climate impact and thus considerable contribution to climate change. Business related travel is a major culprit, yet staying grounded for work is difficult, when regulations, expectations, and time constraints put pressure on us to use a plane. In order to showcase how organisations can design and implement sustainable travel policies Stay Grounded and Zeroing Flying organised a webinar as part of the “Let’s Stay Grounded” campaign on July 2nd, 2020.

The webinar focused on academic and research institutions, where students and staff recently have shown lots of activities and keen interest in grounded travel policies. Indeed, universities in Europe, the USA and Canada have increasingly become places of progressive and climate-friendly travel policy. This accumulated knowledge can also be very helpful for other organisations in formulating and implementing travel policies.

More than 100 registered participants and more than 50 attendees from all over the world show that reducing air travel in organisations is indeed an important topic. Moreover, the corona crisis has shown how quickly and comprehensively organisations are able to replace plane trips with online meetings. This is a valuable experience that we must build on – to avoid that everything goes back to business as usual, once restrictions are lifted.

Find below the video and here the powerpoint  presentation of the webinar.


Inputs and Q&A

Jens Borken-Kleefeld (Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Zeroing Flying) provided the background input for the webinar. He highlighted the need for institutional support for staff who want to stay grounded for business travel – in order to overcome the “fear of losing out” and the need for personal sacrifices. Jens pointed out, relating to a study of his own institute,  that long distance flights make up only 20% of business trips, but create the overwhelming majority of CO emissions.

There are three different strategies that organisations can apply:

1) If unavoidable, choose more efficient flights (direct flights; economy class);

2) Shift the travel mode from plane to train; which can be done especially for flights within Europe and

3) Plan upfront in order to avoid also inter-continental flights

This last point is the hardest to implement. Planning upfront is necessary to be able to reduce the frequency of travel, to chain several trips, to choose central locations for meetings, to substitute trips by sending deputies or by using electronic means, to decline the travel altogether by acknowledging and taking seriously that it simply is not within the carbon budget of the organisation and to arrange work in a way so that plane trips are not necessary in the first place.

Jens emphasized the importance of setting clear carbon emission reduction targets or policy measures that limit the number of flights taken and commit the whole organisation to this target. This also means to introduce new procedures like accounting and monitoring of carbon emissions, good planning of meetings with project partners, justifying and limiting plane trips (by number, distance), offering alternatives and incentives for train travel, revising finance and work rules. Two best practice examples in this field are the ETH Zurich and Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

In the following Q+A with Kårstein Måseide (senior adviser and research coordinator at the Center for Climate and Energy Transformation CET at the University Bergen, Norway) and Maarten Ipers (project coordinator for Sustainability & Mobility at the Environmental department at Vrije Universiteit Brussels) we learned about concrete grounded travel policies at two universities.

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Originating from a bottom-up initiative by researchers, in 2019 Vrije Universiteit Brussels implemented the ABC Principle in its travel policy: AVOID TRAVELLING by videoconferencing and teleclassing (and providing training and facilities); BOOK AN ALTERNATIVE (train) if travel time by train is less than 6 hours  (list of cities that are accessible from Brussel-Zuid in less than 6 hours by train) and COMPENSATE YOUR CO EMISSIONS if an avoidance of flights is not feasible (via Greentripper). At the university, there is a sustainability core group.

At the University Bergen, on the other hand, an AAAA principle was introduced. The aim of CET’s Low Carbon Travel Policy is to mobilize:

  • Awareness of climate gas emission targets and own emissions among researchers;
  • Alternatives for climate-friendly ways of organizing, conducting and meriting research;
  • Accountability through measurements, setting targets, and being transparent;
  • A visible culture that stimulates and supports low emission actions created.

The initiative was started by individual researchers, who established a working group at the CET and developed a travel policy mainly inspired by the Tyndall Centre policy. They also developed a carbon calculator for their network so that people can get an overview of the emissions before they choose a travel mode and invested in video facilities. When organising a conference at University Bergen, they rented a train for researchers to get from Oslo to Bergen including a scientific program and established a virtual hub at the conference. It was also important to discuss their policy with other institutions and to share experiences.

In order to monitor the emissions, University Brussels started working with a central travel agency that collects the travel data for them. Before that, they had to make a work-intensive calculation based on travel data from accounting. University Bergen’s calculator is only for individuals, they also rely on data from travel reimbursements. One problem with taking the data from a travel agency is that it would have to be compulsory for everyone to use it for their bookings. Kårstein also emphasized that right now their main focus is on raising awareness, to target high emitters and to bring down numbers of flights and emissions – not so much on the absolutely correct emission numbers.

There was also some discussion on the topic of offsetting. University Brussels is providing the Gold Standard for external offsetting funds and is still developing ideas on what to use the money of internal funds for. Both University Bergen and Brussels try to bring the message across that real emission cuts are the priority. The question was raised on how to make sure that offsets are not seen as an easy way out or used for internal projects that would take place anyway. Jens remarked, that if financial incentives have the aim to really change travel behaviour, the price for carbon emissions would have to be a lot higher. Anne Kretzschmar from Stay Grounded mentioned that in order to not create the illusion that offsetting really works, it would be important to find alternatives to offsetting, like using the money to support people to take other modes of transport. University Brussels is already offering this option.

Another topic are funding rules by funding institutions or the government that discourage train travel. In Norway, there is a governmental regulation that obliges governmental employees to take the cheapest option. At University Bergen a fund was set aside to finance more expensive train trips, but the problem remains that to do so still violates the regulation. In Belgium, there was a successful talk with Flemish research funds to encourage them to adopt new funding rules. Initiatives like that as well as a general push towards governments to change these funding rules seem to be crucial.

According to Kårstein, Covid 19 has taught us that we are able to work offline. This also worked well, because, since everyone was affected, the “fear of missing out” was reduced. There was also the positive experience to extend the network internationally, because no physical presence was required anymore at events. It will be critical to see what happens when the universities reopen again.

Several factors of success of such initiatives were mentioned: Goals of climate neutrality of universities can be a starting point to advocate for policy changes. All agree that in order to advance from voluntary measures to obligatory rules for the whole institution, there is no way around the commitment by the leadership. This support may be inspired by having committed persons in the right positions, by pressure from outside, by certain crucial events, or by constant work of bottom-up initiatives. In the meantime it is important to build up a critical mass and to advocate alternatives to plane trips to employees.


Networks, platforms, bottom-up initiatives

The Q+A was followed by an introduction of several support structures, networks and bottom up initiatives.

Rosa Hofgartner introduced ExPlane, which aims to support bottom-up initiatives by students and staff at universities. The idea originated from the project Sail to the COP, a group of 36 young Europeans sailing across the Atlantic to call for a fairer and sustainable travel industry. ExPlane  wants to build a network of students and staff demanding universities and schools to lead by example in travelling consciously by creative actions, petitions, student trips, film nights, thesis proposals and school assignments. They hope to engage at least 10 universities. ExPlane is also about to become an official campaign partner of the “Let’s Stay Grounded” campaign.

Sonya Peres introduced the Travel Better Package by “Sustainability Exchange”, delivered by the Alliance for Sustainability in Education (EAUC), that aims to support the reduction of air travel in the education sector. It contains:

  • A Questions & Answer tool addressing concerns individuals may have about reducing air travel
  • The Travel Better Pledge Template for individuals, departments or institutions
  • The Air Travel Justification Tool, which supports individuals in justifying/reflecting on attending events only accessible through flying

Sion Pickering told us about the Roundtable of Academic Sustainable Travel, a network developed by University Edinburgh. It is an inclusive network for universities all over Europe, the US and Asia to share ideas, knowledge and data, offering online workshops and enabling  open discussions on business travel emissions in academia. It also aims to show that “virtual first” networks are possible.

The ETH Zurich, as a pioneer of grounded travel policies in academia (see our best practice example), offers a variety of resources and, developed and introduced by Agnes Kreil, an extensive Map of Academic Air Travel Reduction and Offsetting Projects that provides an overview of universities aiming to reduce air travel all over the world.

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Michaela Leitner introduced the “Let’s Stay Grounded” campaign and specifically the part aimed at organisations, consisting of

  • a resource collection for universities, NGOs and  corporations – including links to (descriptions of) travel policies, platforms and bottom up initiatives,
  • a survey for organisations that can serve as a guide of concrete policy measures and aims to demonstrate the variety of organisations that have (or are on the way to establish) grounded travel policies,
  • a growing collection of best practice examples of grounded organisations and a list of organisations that filled in our survey.

The whole website will expand over time. Resources and webinars for NGOs and corporporations, guides on travel policies and on how to get active, powerpoint presentations, resources on online communication will come soon – so make sure to sign up to our newsletter to stay informed.

Other resources

Find below a list of other interesting initiatives and resources – many of them shared by the participants in the chat (thank you! :))

Travel policies of universities can be found on the Stay Grounded website and in the Map of Academic Air Travel Reduction and Offsetting Projects. Most of them are (detailed) summaries of travel policies, and not the policy itself.

Resources and bottom-up initiatives

Research on success of face to face vs. virtual meetings: 

Rules of funding institutions

One point that was mentioned several times in the discussion, was the need for staff at different universities to collectively address funding policies as an important next step to take, so that individual universities don’t have to fear competitive disadvantages

  • Find in the Stay Grounded resource collection some initiatives addressing funding rules of funding institutions, demanding the inclusion of the carbon footprint of funded projects as criteria
  • Funding criteria by the Wellcome Foundation aiming to reduce the environmental impact of the travel it funds


  • A good travel calculator for specific air travel calculations is Atmosfair.
  • To compare travel modes (time, CO and price) for specific routes, Ecopassenger is a great tool (for Europe).

Radiative Forcing Index

Austrian universities (and Stay Grounded in its infographics) use a RFI of 2.7, which is recommended by the Austrian Environmental Agency, based on IPCC data. 

Voices from the participants

Many of the over 100 registered participants kindly filled in our survey. 61% work at universities, 32% at NGOs and 6% at corporations. They were from all over the world, mainly from Austria (23) and UK (21), Germany (10), Spain (7), Denmark and Netherlands (6), Sweden (5)  and Belgium (4) – but also from the US (3), India and Russia. Most participants did not fly at all in the last 12 months (see graph), about ⅕ to ¼ flew once or 2-3 times – slightly more often for personal than for business reasons. (Note: In the graph presented in the webinar were slightly different numbers due to a calculation mistake.)

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In the survey, we also asked how they feel about flying, and flying for work especially. The participants mentioned very different feelings, ranging from guilt, concern and anger to feelings of excitement, adventure and social bonding. But also feelings regarding the injustice of flying – its relation to extractivism, inequality, privilege for few, the fact that air travel emissions are disproportionately caused by those who are least vulnerable to its effects, violence and vested interests of industry – were mentioned frequently. The thought of reducing flying also evoked fears of not being able to visit one’s family, that the career might suffer, that one might miss opportunities or can’t build networks, that it is harder to stay personally connected and that one has less time to spend with the family if working trips take longer by grounded means of travel.

Regarding the air travel experience itself, mostly negative feelings – stress, annoyance,  rush, unconsciousness – were mentioned (apart from one remark of the beautiful view of the clouds from above).

There was a spectrum of opinions, probably depending on the work context, on whether flying for work is necessary, ranging from calling it “unnecessary”, “sometimes necessary” and a “necessary evil” – but many agreed on the importance of questioning the necessity of flying for work.

Challenges to overcome when reducing business flights are expectations or norms of being an “important” and “international” hypermobile professional, certain academic habits and a sense of entitlement or grandiosity, but also the pressure or obligation to fly and the fear of saying no – especially for early career researchers.

Institutional barriers within organisations are the official travel policies that encourage flying, the international orientation of the organisation, conflicting goals and budget restrictions. Fieldwork and projects where first hand information is needed that involve far distance travel are hard to replace. Since taking a plane consumes much energy, but comparatively little time, many respondents see the question of time management a challenge to overcome – finding the time to travel more slowly and to arrange work life with family life.

But there are also external institutional barriers, like rules of governmental or EU-institutions or PhD programs.

Many participants have already become active within their organisation, which, on one hand, led to important changes in travel policies and behaviour. On the other hand, it also sometimes led to frustration and disappointment. Some respondents experienced a lack of resonance to their efforts, of awareness of problematic aspects of flying, of willingness or ability to change travel behaviour, of experiences with and trust in alternatives, of commitment by management, of structural support of individual employees that do not want to fly, and also of video conferencing facilities.

This survey shows that it is still important to raise awareness on the issue of business air travel, to offer viable alternatives to it and to build up structures that support individuals and organisations to ground their travelling.


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