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Will technology help us build a more sustainable future for business travel

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Will technology help us build a more sustainable future for business travel?

By Amelie Losanes, Senior Consultant, Sustainable Collaboration

Sustainability leaders across the globe are all spreading the same message: without immediate action, climate change is going to continue to intensify.

Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s tone has changed in recent reports, from creating guidelines and making scientific recommendations to urging people to act.

What does this mean for business travel? While the easiest way to make your travel program more sustainable is traveling less by eliminating non-essential travel, the next step is encouraging your travelers to travel better by shifting to more eco-friendly travel alternatives. Today, there are numerous technological solutions designed to help create more sustainable alternatives, but not all of them are right or ready. Here are some of the sustainability tech trends you’ll hear about in 2023 and whether they are on track to help the travel industry reach its climate targets.

Direct Air Capture (DAC)

Direct air capture (DAC) is a newer technology that captures carbon directly out of the air via absorption. There are currently 18 DAC plants operating worldwide capturing more than 10,000 tons of CO2 per year, equivalent to the emissions of 5,000 passengers traveling on a return flight from Paris to New York City.

Pros:

  • The technology exists, and we know it can work.
  • Carbon removal is one of the ways the IPCC says we can achieve global carbon neutrality.
  • Many investments are being made in this field and policies are being developed to support the use of the technology

Cons:

  • The technology is energy-intensive, and that energy also creates emissions.
  • Currently, the solution has limited capacity. Based on current existing DAC plants, the technology absorbs 0.00002% of our emissions.

Is it on par with climate targets?

No, though it’s expected this technology can be scaled in the future. However, even if DAC is scaled up to capture more than 85 million tons of CO2 per year by 2030, this still only represents 0.2% of current emissions, so there’s still a long way to go to shift the balance positively.

Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF)

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is an alternative to traditional jet fuel. It is either made out of biomass (such as used cooking oil) or made synthetically.

Pros:

  • The technology exists and has attracted investments from airports, airlines, and major oil and gas companies.
  • When you account for the total lifecycle of the fuel, SAF can be 40-80% more CO2 efficient than standard jet fuel that’s based on fossil fuel.
  • There’s no need to change the aircraft to carry SAF; it can be used in the existing engines.

Cons:

  • Burning SAF produces the same emissions in the atmosphere as traditional jet fuel although there may be gains on the sourcing side depending on how the SAF is made.
  • While there are a lot of contracts in place for SAF delivery over the next several years, the factories to manufacture the fuel haven’t all been built yet.
  • There will also be huge competition for the limited supply, as the car and rail industries also want to use SAF.
  • Airlines are relying heavily on SAF, expecting it to account for about 30% of their emissions reduction, but that’s not realistic based on current offtake agreements and actual supply.

Is it on par with climate targets?

No. SAF will only supply 1% of total industry needs by 2025 based on current capacity and future agreements. There is a clear gap between both demand and production, and targets and reality. In addition, since it’s based on technology that’s not currently scalable, there’s the risk of increasing emissions unless the energy used to produce SAF is renewable.

Hydrogen Planes

Hydrogen planes are planes powered by hydrogen. They need to safely store liquid hydrogen and include fuel cells which convert the hydrogen to electricity.

Pros:

  • Hydrogen is everywhere and freely available.

Cons:

  • Breaking the hydrogen molecule requires a huge amount of energy, so it’s hard to tell whether it is achievable, sustainable, and doable based on the current number of planes in the air.
  • Hydrogen is extremely flammable, so additional precautions need to be made to carry it onboard aircraft, which might increase the overall weight of the aircraft.

Is it on par with climate targets?

No. While hydrogen planes sound great on paper, this technology is very new and is not yet ready for commercial flights. No one knows if or when it will be ready for medium and long-haul flights. It may be a solution in the future for small aircraft, such as private jets.

Electric Planes

An electric plane is a plane powered in the same way as an electric car.

Pros:

  • The technology already exists and is being used successfully in electric cars.

Cons:

  • The technology requires batteries, which are heavy, and therefore increases the energy needed for transport. Plus, a lot of energy is needed to fill the battery. For example, it would take 10 nuclear plants just to provide the energy needed to make all the planes at the Paris CDG airport electric.
  • To make this technology greener, we’d need to decarbonize the grid (make the energy generation greener), otherwise you’re using more fossil fuels and creating more emissions.

Is it on par with climate targets?

No. The technology is not ready for commercial flights and won’t be within the three-year deadline.

Electric Cars

Electric cars have batteries instead of a gas tank, and electric motors instead of internal combustion engines.

Pros:

  • The technology exists and is being expanded. There is legislation in different parts of the world to support the increased use of electric vehicles. For example, there’s planned legislation in the EU and California to ban sales of new internal combustion vehicles by 2035.
  • Over the whole lifecycle of electric vehicles, they are up to 80% more sustainable than internal combustion vehicles. And they are always more sustainable than similar sized cars.
  • They emit less energy when they run.

Cons:

  • It’s unlikely that all current cars could be fully replaced with electric vehicles before the deadline due to shortages of materials.
  • Battery production is the most emissions-heavy part of the process.
  • Materials shortages and the energy crisis, especially since COVID and the Ukraine war, have held up production and sales.
  • Not everywhere worldwide has the charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

Is it on par with climate targets?

Yes, almost. This is a valid solution that shows a lot of promise.

The bottom line

Business travel has changed for the long-term. As you begin to create a sustainable business travel strategy, make sure to look beyond the trends and industry buzzwords to determine where you can make a real impact with your program. Many of these technology solutions aren’t yet scalable and it’s important that you employ other solutions you can use today to take action now. Need help getting started? Contact our team here!

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