How much can we help the environment by avoiding international travel – and exactly what impact does it have on business?
With COP26 in full swing and the monumental challenges of climate change on everyone’s minds, it seemed a good time to look at how our company’s carbon footprint has changed because of the pandemic.
Our calculations are based on our best estimates but, as I’ll explain, the picture they paint is clear. Our environmental impact has reduced dramatically and – most surprisingly – there’s been no evidence of a detrimental effect on our company or our clients’ performance in Asia.
How we crunched the numbers
As a company that specialises in helping western firms expand in Asia, we looked primarily at air travel as our activity with the greatest environmental effect. We compared the pandemic period, during which we haven’t flown at all, with 2019 as the last full year before COVID.
We counted the trips our employees took in 2019 between the US, Europe, Australia and Asia as well as domestically (except within China, as these have continued through much of the pandemic).
We added the journeys our western clients made to Asia for meetings we’d lined up to conclude deals with Asian corporations.
And we used the carbon emissions calculator from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to estimate the impact of this travel.
What we found
In 2019, our employees’ trips to and from Asia clocked up approximately 21 tonnes of CO2.
Their domestic journeys within North America incurred seven tonnes, and trips within Europe eight.
That totals 36 tonnes of CO2 across the 80 employees we had that year.
But this figure is overshadowed by the hundreds of clients who travelled to Asia from North America and Europe in 2019 as part of the business development programmes we were running for them. These journeys racked up approximately 790 tonnes.
Combining these figures gives us a total of 826 tonnes of CO2.
Of course, most of that travel has been replaced by Zoom and Teams calls since then. While they have far less environmental impact, they aren’t carbon-free.
This online calculator estimates that an hour’s video call incurs around 0.03kg of CO2 in emissions from energy consumption. An average of 10 hours per week per employee over 48 working weeks equates to around 1.7 tonnes of CO2 a year for our firm.
Subtracting those emissions from the air travel forgone gives an approximate annual net saving of 824 tonnes of CO2 compared with 2019.
The commercial fall-out
So, the carbon savings and environmental benefits of not travelling internationally have been huge. But what about the commercial fall-out? Less travel must have been bad for business – right?
Surprisingly, our experience says no – not for us, nor our clients.
Aside from a short-term dip in spring 2020 when COVID first hit the west, our business has continued to grow strongly. We’re seeing more clients than ever who are keen to work with us to expand in Asia, we’ve opened two new offices in the last year and have just hired our 100th employee.
Nor is there any sign that the number of deals we’re able to conclude with Asian corporations on behalf of our western clients has been hit by the lack of international travel.
In fact, we brokered 133 deals in 2020 and have concluded a whopping 166 in the past 12 months. That compares with 75 in 2019, when we and our clients were still travelling.
How can that be possible?
Pre-COVID, there was a good deal of validity in the traditional view that you had to travel to Asia to get deals done there. But exceptional times call for special measures, and the pandemic has made Asian corporations more open than ever before to working with western contacts remotely.
Add to this the fact that, with Asia largely back to business while the west has been under lockdown, our teams in the region have continued meeting their corporate contacts face-to-face to build trusted relationships on our clients’ behalf.
Then, when it’s time to seal a deal, instead of flying clients out to Asia as in years past, we’re having great success in running Virtual Roadshows.
We’ve also been organising Virtual Trade Missions for our government clients and, through our Surrogate Exhibitor service, been representing clients at Asian trade shows and events.
What’s more, these approaches have not only overcome the barrier of the pandemic’s travel ban – they’ve brought considerable cost savings and efficiency gains for us and our clients.
So, what does the future hold?
COVID-19, then, has changed the way we all work – and the absence of air travel relating to our business alone has seen 824 fewer tonnes of CO2 a year emitted.
Just imagine how this must scale up across the whole commercial world.
Importantly, we’ve seen no business downturn for us or our clients as a consequence. And you can add to this all the extra benefits of reduced travel – from lower costs to less jet lag and the chance to spend more time with your family than at the airport.
But what will happen in the near future when we finally get COVID under better control?
I’ve no doubt people will travel for business again when they need to. But I hope they’ll do so far less than in the past, knowing now how much can be achieved through other means. We may also see travel patterns change – perhaps with fewer but longer trips, now we can all work from anywhere.
This may be an important upside from this otherwise dreadful pandemic - and one we all have a duty to take on board for the sake of the planet.