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President-elect Joe Biden will reverse his predecessor’s decision to pull out of a landmark global climate pact.

As election voting drew to a close on November 4, so too did the country’s official participation in the Paris Agreement. But Biden has signaled his intention to rejoin it, in keeping with his campaign manifesto, and the country’s U-turn will likely impact the wider travel industry.

The agreement was negotiated by 196 countries during a United Nations conference in Paris in December 2015 — and came into effect on November 4, 2016. It calls on those countries to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change, with travel perceived as a major contributor to global warming.

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The goal is to limit the warming to below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 C) above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 C), recognizing this reduces the risks and impacts of climate change.

In 2017, President Donald Trump said the U.S. would exit the agreement at the earliest effective date, which was November 4, 2020. There have been reports he criticized it as imposing an unfair burden on the U.S., and that it did little to halt climate change-causing emissions from other countries.

Tightening Down on Policies

Aviation in particular is regarded as harmful to the environment, along with other types of industries, with premium cabins under fire due to the amount of space they take up on planes. “If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 for greenhouse gas emissions,” the European Union has noted.

Over the past few years, the Paris Agreement has spurred many organizations to become greener, with its science-based targets providing a tangible way for them to gauge how quickly they need to reduce their carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions.

“In my view, this is the only sensible way that businesses can align their reduction targets, across all of their emissions reporting, including business travel, if we are to limit global warming,” said Helen Hodgkinson of corporate travel consultancy Festive Road. “Unless it links back to the Paris Agreement, and science-based targets, then while it may be an admirable reduction target it may not be enough. The challenge is getting everyone to commit to this.”

Some organizations already benchmark their travel programs against the agreement. Last month, online gambling company Kindred Group said it had aligned its energy targets with the Paris Agreement. It identified that it needed to reduce corporate travel by a third.

“By 2023, Kindred aims to reduce 85 percent of absolute scope 1 and 2 emissions (market-based) from a 2018 base year, by purchasing certificates of origin. [It] also aims to reduce 30 percent of business travels by 2023, also from a 2018 base year. This is considered to be science-based targets in line with the (United Nations) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” it said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the Bank of England said it is on track to meet the 2020 carbon reduction target it set in 2016, and is now setting its next target to 2030 in line with the aims of the Paris Agreement. It aims to cut business travel by 63 percent by 2030, against a 2015/16 baseline.

Other companies such as Rolls Royce, Ford, Tetrapak, and Paypal are also applying targets within their corporate strategy to be consistent with limiting global warming to the agreement’s objectives.

Hanging in the Balance

The U.S.’s return to the agreement sends a message to other countries, and organizations, that climate action will need to be a priority.

“Without the U.S.’s involvement, it would have given cover to big fossil fuel producers, such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Australia, to do nothing,” said Andrew Perolls, CEO of consultancy Greengage Solutions. “It would have given others, such as India, a reason not to do more. More pressure would have been placed onto Europe to shoulder diplomatic leadership.”

The U.S. accounts for 13 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, behind China — the world’s biggest polluter — with 26 percent of emissions. China has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2060. The UK has also set a similar target for 2050.

“As Kindred and Bank of England have demonstrated, this could become a popular benchmark applied to business travel — which is considered to be one of the easier targets for greenhouse gas emissions reduction,” Perolls said.

Emerging from the pandemic, many organizations will now find that alignment more attainable, considering the pandemic-induced reductions in travel so far, and a culture of video conferencing in the years ahead. The need to travel will also be much more closely questioned.

It’s not just about saving the planet, either. As part of supply chain management, companies are increasingly requiring their suppliers to provide evidence of green credentials, processes and accreditation — and sustainability practice is an increasingly significant requirement of corporate travel agency tender submissions, Perolls suggests.

“Companies are aware their customers and investors are interested not just in their products or services but also who makes them, where they are made and what is the company ethics and ethos. Essentially environment sustainability is good for the planet, good for people and good for the bottom line,” he said.

Hitting Targets

Perolls said one of the simplest ways to reduce carbon dioxide emissions on air travel is by switching away from business class. Meanwhile, more rigorous travel policies and authorisation processes, prompted by coronavirus, could remain in place even after a vaccine is found, with travellers required to provide a statement of value prior to international travel.

And those companies that think carbon offsetting is the answer may need to think again, because a flight emits carbon dioxide immediately into the atmosphere, while planting a tree can take many years to absorb an equivalent amount.

“Accurate carbon dioxide measurement and budgeting will become a greater priority supporting the principle of what gets measured gets done,” Perolls said. “Most travellers would favour reducing their carbon footprint but don’t have the information to make informed choices. Individual carbon dioxide budgets are already in place in a limited way. And in the future, measurement of the emissions from hotel accommodation will also be factored into calculating an organisation’s travel carbon footprint,” he added.

For CWT, while the Paris Agreement is a high profile, internationally-backed initiative that is underpinning the growing momentum at a corporate level to travel sustainably, there are other catalysts for change.

“All our global prospects and customers have asked us about corporate social responsibility, and our responsible business commitments, in recent RFPs. I’m not sure that companies will use the Paris Agreement to formalize their lower volumes in the future, because the measures an individual organisation or even a whole industry needs to take will be subjective according to their respective baselines and circumstances,” said Richard Johnson, senior director of CWT’s Solutions Group.

“What I would say is that volumes will likely be influenced by a few factors, such as the extent to which business travel is fundamental to an organisation’s ability to conduct its business, the opportunity to travel using equivalent, lower carbon alternatives – which wouldn’t necessarily mean volumes need to reduce, but rather evolve, and the desire to balance employee wellbeing and productivity with climate protection and the influence this may have on travel policies.”

Biden’s U.S. Presidential victory will clearly have far-reaching consequences on the world stage, and the new administrations’s impact on the role travel will play in the climate change movement shouldn’t be underestimated.

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Photo Credit: Heads of delegations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana / Flickr