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Coming clean
Business Travel World – May 2007

Carbon counting is the new zeitgeist. Mark Smulian examines key arguments in the growing surface versus air emissions debate

Business travel, perhaps unfortunately, finds itself at the centre of a political issue gripping the public imagination; arguments about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on global warming moving swiftly from the fringe to the mainstream of collective consciousness.

Consumers are alarmed and confused in equal measure, daily being fed a welter of differing information or spin from governmental, activist or self-interest lobbies, claims and counterclaims regarding global, national, corporate or personal pollution responsibility ricocheting between them. At the same time, with no cohesive polluter pays policy in place, each of the main UK political parties is vying to prove itself the most caring, concerned or toughest on the issue.

Transport being an acknowledged contributor to CO2 emissions, it is little wonder that, deserved or not, travel in general, along with travel suppliers and those who travel for a living, find themselves under the spotlight and no little pressure to clean up their act. Or at least to be seen to be making an effort to do so as part of corporate social responsibility programmes.

Unnecessary emissions are under scrutiny and air travel is a primary target for criticism, particularly for domestic journeys or short flights to Europe where there are or what appear to be viable surface travel alternatives.

Government ministers are pushing the issue hard and have set up the Civil Service Travel Group to encourage greener short-haul journeys, albeit from the standpoint of their own domestic departments rarely using air for journeys.

Consensus is that the less-polluting surface travel providers should be able to capitalise on their greener-than-air travel credentials to appeal to the conscience of people who normally fly.

But are they? Can surface providers really hope to win over more short-haul customers from air with cost-effective, viable and practical greener alternatives for most business travellers?

There is no doubting that progress is being made. But currently the answer lies buried in an equation revolving around time, cost, convenience, expectation and practicality; depending largely on where they start their journey, what they drive or how they transfer, and whether or not they travel alone. Not to mention potentially paying more for less or sacrificing independence of choice and privilege for 'doing their bit'.

Rail operators argue they can, or soon will, compete with aircraft on both time and emissions on a city centre-to-city centre journey, given the time taken to reach airports and check-in.

But that reasoning looks weak if the traveller is based nearer to an airport than to a city centre. It also looks economically suspect for domestic journeys, given the big differences that can exist between peak rail and budget airline fares.

On the road, one person hiring a car and driving, for example from London to Glasgow, will emit less carbon than flying, although how much less varies with car specifications.

Four people sharing a car would emit the same as one driver, saving four chunks of flight emissions. But how practical is that option, given the average business trip requirement and time allocation?

Similar arguments apply to journeys to the near continent. Eurostar claims a traveller using its London-Paris service, for example, is responsible for 11 times fewer emissions than a passenger on an equivalent flight, as well as matching or improving on the journey time.

But its services can be costly without long advance booking and journey times assume that passengers are starting from central London.

And what about the car and ferry alternative, should circumstances and extended journey times permit? We operate a fare structure similar to budget airlines and using a ferry really adds nothing to emissions," says P&O Ferries spokesman Brian Rees. "But that's not taking into account the emissions for the road segments of the journey."

One drawback, it seems, is that surface providers are still getting used to promoting themselves on the basis of CO2 emissions, and it will take time to effect a change in business travellers' perceptions, says Tony Bosworth, transport campaigner for Friends of the Earth. "But they're pushing at an open door because this issue is not just a flavour of the month. Everyone now sees global warming as the biggest threat facing the world. Surface providers need to get PR savvy."

Hugo Kimber, chief executive of the Carbon Consultancy, says that only Eurostar has to date made an effective pitch on emission comparisons with air and claims that other surface providers have plenty of scope.

"Driving instead of flying from London to Manchester, for example, provides a big carbon saving advantage, provided there is a group of people," he says. "Cars are becoming more environmentally efficient, although it needs to be remembered that hybrids work best at 30mph or less and not when driven long distances."

He adds: "Trains will always be more carbon efficient than air and we have done well in persuading more people to travel by rail. But, to some extent, rail has been a victim of its own success, with mainline overcrowding now hampering its ability to compete with air."

High fares are another major problem. "We've urged operators to adopt a simplified fare structure similar to budget airlines, instead of the often baffling tariffs now offered. If a London-Scotland rail journey costs, say, 200 and the plane 60, of course people are going to fly," says Kimber.

Christian Wolmar, author of several books on the rail industry, says: "Concerns about CO2 emissions provide a golden opportunity for rail, but some train fares remain extraordinarily expensive. I tried to go from London to Swansea first class return and was quoted 550. It's ludicrous. First class is pretty well empty except on the busiest peak trains, and they're carrying around empty seats in those carriages that earn them nothing as well as reducing their environmental advantages. The rail pricing structure is not user-friendly, and while that's the case many companies will prefer to use flights."

Tim Shoveller, Virgin Trains' business development director, argues that rail operators cannot price like budget airlines because a substantial part of the market would object.

"When you get to half-hourly frequencies on routes, people want to have walk-up fares," he says. "You can't just fix a single fare like airlines because there are two different markets, those who want discounts from advance booking and those who want total flexibility.

If fares are a problem for rail, then vehicle costs are a problem for car rental.

"The environment is at the top of our agenda and average emissions per kilometre from our cars have fallen from 171gm in 2002 to 158gm last year, the equivalent of 15 million kg less a year across the fleet," claims Tim Bailey, National Car Rental's vice president (fleet).

"We have steadily increased the proportion of diesel vehicles we operate, which now make up around 38% of the fleet, and we are working closely with manufacturers on low emission and hybrid vehicles to ensure we can provide these to corporate customers to meet their own environmental objectives."

While Avis and others are also testing hybrids, Hertz has launched a 'green collection' of cars that, according to Bill Jones, vice president, marketing and sales, "recognises that support for the environment is high on the corporate responsibility agenda for many companies."

"However," says Bailey, "diesel, hybrid and lower emission vehicles cost more to develop and manufacture and therefore more to buy and maintain than standard vehicles. Consequently, they are more costly to rent and until customers see a specific value in paying more for these vehicles there's unlikely to be a significant change in the type of cars being rented."

At the end of the line comes the humble coach that "could create some pretty fabulous results on emissions given the number of people it can carry", according to the Carbon Consultancy's Kimber. "Here's both an opportunity and a problem because there is little chance of business travellers either being able to work aboard or feel they are in an appropriate environment," he says.

A National Express spokeswoman agrees: "We do have an image problem, although we are looking at what the business and commuter markets really want and are hoping to borrow ideas from our sister company Alfa, which runs the upmarket Supra coach line in Spain, specifically targeted at business travellers. Low emissions are one thing but it's also about finding out what works for the market."

Overall, there is no question that surface travel wins hands down over air on emission levels, but it still needs the right combination of time, cost and convenience to make a dent in the airline market. In the meantime, emphasising their green credentials should do providers no harm at all.

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