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Sustainability, Air Travel, and Meetings: No Intersection on the Horizon

Airlines are ramping up their carbon-reducing measures—but ever so slightly—while more attendees face internal carbon budgets and taxes to come to events. What can planners do?

Virgin Atlantic Airlines announced in late November that it will be the first carrier to operate a trans-Atlantic jumbo-jet flight powered entirely by sustainable aviation fuel—a mix of used cooking oil, animal fat, and agricultural waste. No firm date has been set, but it is expected to happen in the next several weeks.

According to an article from CNN, the flight is the latest in a series of tests involving the extensive use of sustainable aviation fuel. This fall, Emirates Airlines ran SAF through one of four engines of an Airbus A380 for a long flight, while business-jet manufacturer Gulfstream completed a transatlantic flight of a twin-engine business aircraft using only SAF.

But as promising as this sounds, the hurdles facing SAF as a solution to the air-travel industry producing 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions are significant. First, the cost of making SAF is about six times higher than fossil fuels, according to the European Aviation Safety Agency. Second, the ability to make the amount of SAF needed to meaningfully reduce carbon emissions is very far off because of insufficient volume of the raw materials as well as a dearth of production facilities. As a result, airlines are presently using SAF as less than 0.2 percent of their fuel mix, though U.S. production of SAF could be 2.1 billion gallons by 2030, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. That means SAF could account for roughly nine percent of jet fuel consumed in the U.S. by then—still a very small percentage of the total.

A new means of offsetting carbon from air travel is converting carbon to non-degradable blocks for long-term storage, a process known as carbon casting. According to this article, American Airlines is working with an engineering firm named Graphyte to remove 10,000 tons of carbon from the atmosphere by 2025 through this method.

Barclay Rogers, CEO of Graphyte, said in a November press release that American’s initiative “demonstrates the growing demand for affordable and scalable carbon-removal credits.” Jill Blickstein, chief sustainability officer at American Airlines, added that “American is focused on accelerating new technologies to reduce aviation’s climate impact. Hard-to-abate industries like aviation will need high-quality, permanent, affordable, and scalable carbon credits, including removals, to achieve our emissions-reduction goals.”

How Air-Travel Emissions Affect Meeting Attendance
With supply-side solutions for reducing carbon emissions only in the fledgling stages, many corporations, associations, and universities are adapting their travel policies to make an impact from the demand side of air travel—a trend that will increasingly affect meetings, conventions, and exhibitions.

For instance, Microsoft imposed an internal “carbon tax” a few years back that amounted to $15 per metric ton that each department had to pay to offset the carbon emissions from its employees’ business travel. But in March 2022, that tax was hiked to $100 per metric ton—a 576 percent increase.  

MeetingsNet’s coverage of that development included the following:

“On average, flights generate greenhouse-gas emissions of a quarter ton CO2 equivalent per hour. That means a Microsoft employee taking the five-hour direct flight from the company’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters to a conference in Orlando will pay a fee on about 1.25 metric tons CO2 equivalent. Roundtrip, that’s 2.5 metric tons. Prior to March 2022, the carbon fee for travel to and from the conference would have been about $38. After March 2022, the cost went to $250. If a four-person team wants to attend, that’s a $1,000 carbon tax coming from the department’s budget.”

Another corporate example: In January 2023, international consulting firm McKinsey implemented an internal carbon fee on all air travel, which funds decarbonization efforts that include carbon removal and producing sustainable aviation fuels. The carbon fee applies to all internal and client-related air travel, which McKinsey says represents more than 80 percent of the firm’s overall carbon footprint.

As a result of such policies, potential participants of meetings and conventions must determine whether there is sufficient value in attending, putting pressure on event hosts to show the return on investment from the in-person experience.

Another means of rationing the amount of air travel used by employees, particular in university and research settings, is carbon budgets. With a hard cap on a department’s total travel-related carbon emissions, some veterans have reduced their travel to allow younger colleagues to attend conferences. An article from Tufts University’s magazine includes this perspective from one professor: “For conferences that are valuable, Parke Wilde will sometimes step aside if one of his graduate students can attend instead. ‘It frees up room in the carbon budget for our junior colleagues who are still building their careers,’ he says.”

While actions like these might not shrink the number of attendees at an event, it does reduce the collective experience and perspective in the room—precisely the element that makes younger attendees want the in-person experience.

What Planners Can Do
So, what does this mean for planners of business events?  Matthew Huber, a professor at Purdue University and the director of Purdue Institute for a Sustainable Future, said this at the Professional Convention Management Association’s 2023 Convening Leaders conference, according to PCMA’s publication Convene: “As an industry, one of the main things to realize is that unless the emissions you try to cut are due to air-travel decreasing, you’re working in the margins. ...If you don’t help to tackle the issue of air travel, you’re never going to be able to move the needle very much” on the carbon emissions coming from meetings.

At Convening Leaders, Huber also shared research from the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities regarding the carbon impact of moving a series of academic conferences from different destinations throughout Europe to one central location—Frankfurt, Germany—where the airport has a high number of direct flights. “You’re talking about a 20- to 25-percent reduction in emissions just by changing the location,” Huber said. “That is a big knob that you can tune to improve" the sustainability quotient for an event.

One other possibility for reducing travel-related carbon emissions: planning meetings in destinations where a lot of attendees can arrive by car or mass transit.

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