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Responsible Travel - Making Business Trips (More) Sustainable

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Background - why should we care?

Business travel is one of the largest items in the emissions balance sheet of universities and the trend is continuously upwards. At ETH Zurich, for example, almost 60 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions were caused by air travel in 2019.[1] In addition, the burning of paraffin also releases other, significantly more potent greenhouse gases. The pollution is additionally amplified by the so-called "altitude effect".

By the way:

If you want to travel to an event that takes place nearby, you can also think about travelling by bike. Especially for short trips in a regional context, the use of the bicycle as the lowest-emission means of transport is always worth considering.

Business travel - especially in science - clearly poses a sustainability dilemma: On the one hand, there is the awareness that every air journey has a negative impact on the environment that would like to be avoided. On the other hand, maintaining and expanding international contacts, exchanging ideas and conducting research together, and perhaps also experiencing other scientific cultures, are qualitative characteristics of outstanding science and researchers. There is no one-size-fits-all way to decide which factor is more important - each individual must make this decision for him- or herself, depending on the circumstances. Here we would like to give you some thoughts and information to help you make a conscious decision.

Making a conscious decision - what should be considered?

A map of Europe with exemplary destinations for business trips from Bielefeld. The map shows the travel time and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions in CO2 equivalents for the journey by plane and by train. For most destinations, there is a clear difference in travel time; in particular, destinations further away can be reached much faster by plane. For destinations closer to home, the difference is smaller; Brussels is even quicker to reach by train. The CO2 balance for all destinations is clearly more positive in favour of travelling by train. Here, too, the effect is stronger for longer distances. If you are interested in an accessible version of the data visualised in the map, please contact the Sustainability Office.
© Sustainability Office Bielefeld University

The graph opposite illustrates what is now common knowledge: rail journeys leave a much smaller carbon footprint than journeys by air. On the other hand, a train journey - depending on the destination - takes considerably more time than a journey by plane. However, there is no need for check-in, baggage check or security checks, which take a corresponding amount of time. In addition, train stations are often located directly in the city centre, so it often takes less time to get to the final destination, which can further reduce the overall travel time.

This consideration shows that it is often not so easy to make a conscious decision about one's own business trip, as there are many aspects to consider. The choice of means of transport is also not the only adjusting screw with which one can make a decision towards more sustainable business trips. The following aspects can be considered during an upcoming business trip and contribute to a conscious decision:

Avoid - Reduce - Compensate

A conscious decision can be achieved with the rough test scheme "Avoid - Reduce - Compensate":

Can I avoid my business trip?

In principle, of course, not travelling also represents the greatest avoidance of emissions. So the choice is yours:

  • not to participate in the event.
  • Decide to have fewer participants . Is it sufficient if only individuals from the WG or the project participate?
  • to option for digital participation. This usually means significantly lower CO2 emissions and resource consumption. Additional benefits can include reduced costs and time savings. But beware: even online meetings are of course not automatically climate-neutral.

Nevertheless, it is not possible to avoid business travel in every case. There are many good reasons to be on site, and this also with several members of a team. This is where the next consideration becomes interesting:

Even if digital participation in your event is not an option, there are ways to make the journey more sustainable. Above all, avoiding the plane makes a big contribution here. Especially for shorter distances within Europe, other means of transport are a good alternative. So is my destination...

  • less than 1000 km away?
  • easy to reach by other means of transport? First and foremost the train, but also the bus or carpooling by car can be considered. The map above shows an example of the comparison between air travel and rail travel for frequent business travel destinations starting from Bielefeld University. The journey time by train is longer, but the emissions are significantly lower.

However, a longer arrival journey often requires more overnight stays at the destination. Overnight stays are also an emission factor: for example, an average overnight stay in a three-star hotel produces 16.9 kg of CO2 emissions, while a five-star hotel produces 47.6 kg.[2] Ideally, this aspect should also be taken into consideration when planning a business trip.

If business travel by air is necessary, there are ways to contribute to a more sustainable overall balance. Emissions from air travel can be financially compensated via various providers, and thus offset with climate-friendly measures. At NRW universities, however, such compensation payments have so far had to be made from private funds. In the context of DFG-funded projects, there is a separate compensation mechanism that you can ask your faculty head about.

If private compensation is possible for you, you can contact the following providers, among others:


Climate Fair:

Climate Collect:

To help you weigh up your own participation in the event, there is also a decision-making aid available that clearly addresses the points mentioned above.

[1] ETH Zürich (2019): Reduktionsziele und Maßnahmen ETH Zürich.

[2] DEHOGA (2016): Nachhaltiges Wirtschaften in Hotellerie und Gastronomie.

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