Driving down CO2 with sustainable travel

9th December 2011


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  • Employee engagement ,
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the environmentalist reports on how Natural England has halved its carbon footprint through a sustainable travel plan

As the government’s advisory body responsible for providing practical advice on how best to safeguard England’s natural heritage, it follows that Natural England places a high premium on sustainability.

The organisation was formed from three different bodies in 2006 and, almost immediately, it made a commitment to reduce its carbon footprint by 50% by the end of 2010. “It was a key objective of our board to be able to demonstrate our credibility as an environmental leader,” says Paul Hinds, head of sustainability.

Achieving a 50% reduction in carbon emissions meant focusing on two key elements – the organisation’s estates, and business travel. Much of the former could be realised through technological or infrastructure changes, but changing the travel patterns of up to 2,500 employees was always going to be the more demanding challenge. However, Natural England exceeded its goal, with a 2010 independent audit verifying a 55% drop in its carbon footprint following a three-year carbon-reduction programme.

Previous travel patterns

Although the ambitious carbon-reduction goal was put in place in 2006, work towards achieving it took on new momentum with the appointment, in 2007, of a new senior post, head of sustainability. While business travel can be a challenging area for many organisations, for Natural England reducing its impact was a particularly daunting prospect. The daily work of its large workforce can take employees to the most remote and rural regions of the English countryside so business travel had long been established as a regular and necessary activity.

To further complicate the project, the amalgamation of three different organisations to form Natural England meant that three different cultures and expectations existed around business travel. Hinds says that at the time there was no coherence to travel patterns, with some remote teams holding weekly meetings and some employees having to travel up to 100 miles to attend. In some teams, there seemed to be little forward planning for customer meetings – for example, no thought was put into prearranging them so that several could be held sequentially to minimise travel.

There were a considerable number of domestic flights between the organisation’s different offices and a perception, in some parts of the business, that car mileage claims were there to subsidise individual incomes. There was also a cultural legacy for a small section of the organisation that people had earned the right to travel first class by train.

There were notable exceptions to the general incoherence around business travel, adds Hinds, with many individuals motivated to work for the organisation because of their commitment to sustainability and a love for the natural environment.

Although this meant that some staff already took a responsible approach to business travel, for others the plans to rationalise business travel arrangements were, paradoxically, perceived as an obstacle to employees’ ability to fulfil their work commitments. It was clear from the start that winning over the hearts and minds of people, and gaining their buy-in to a proposed sustainable travel plan, would be pivotal to the project’s success.

Developing robust tools

Establishing a baseline of estate energy consumption was relatively simple, the data being largely obtainable through meter readings and energy bills. Gathering reliable information on individuals’ business travel was tricky and took much longer. As Hinds explains, there was no one clear source of data and one person’s travel was not necessarily representative of another’s.

All the information needed to measure Natural England’s carbon emissions through travel had to be collected via the organisation’s financial data, which meant developing and applying a cost-to-distance conversion factor. Defra conversion factors were then applied to work out the carbon footprint.

However, calculating the carbon emissions from rail travel using the financial data at the organisation’s disposal was, again, not straightforward, as it could not be assumed that the price of a ticket amounted to a specific level of carbon. The company asked Redfern, a travel management company, to provide a carbon footprint for each journey taken. It was then possible to establish a baseline for the business travel undertaken across the organisation, as well as put in place the ongoing measurement capability to monitor travel patterns in future.

Gaining buy-in

Making Natural England’s estates more carbon efficient required no significant input from the rank and file, but a radical reduction in the environmental impact of business travel required substantial behavioural change on the part of employees.

In 2008, the organisation embarked on an all-embracing engagement programme aimed at educating and empowering staff. From the start, the objective was to involve employees in devising a sustainable travel plan and not impose a top-down solution. This culminated in around 40 “green travel policy options” for staff to discuss and prioritise.

The options comprised a series of policies designed to make travel more sustainable, ranging from providing bikes in offices for employee use to video- and teleconferencing.

“This was not a pick and mix,” emphasises Hinds. “The aim was to generate debate and test the water in terms of what people would find workable.”

Hinds and his small team organised workshops around the business, deliberately ensuring the first item on the agenda dealt with people’s criticisms and negativity so the discussion could move on.

Although the initial proposals had engendered a considerable level of resentment in some pockets of the organisation, Hinds says that very quickly this indignation dissipated and people became more positive and proactive in the discussions.

“The key was that people had the chance to have input and shape the final travel programme. It was very clear that most employees were committed to reducing their carbon footprint but wanted to retain the day-to-day responsibility for making the right travel decisions themselves, rather than be faced with a prescriptive approach,” he comments.

Through discussion, the 40-odd policy options were reduced to just three:

  1. A travel “hierarchy”, with the most desirable travel options, in environmental terms, at the top – such as video- and teleconferencing – and the least desirable, although sometimes unavoidable, ones – for example, car use – at the bottom. It was left to individual employees’ discretion to make the appropriate judgments about which travel option they would use for a particular journey.
  2. Effort focused on teams with the highest carbon footprint to achieve the greatest gains.
  3. A team carbon-reduction commitment.

Staff wanted to know their team’s carbon footprint, Hinds says, and a strategy was developed to place accountability with individual teams to work together to achieve their carbon-reduction commitment.

Teamwork and targets

Teams at Natural England cover a wide spectrum of different locations, sizes and job roles. They range from five to 100 people and their travel patterns and needs vary enormously. For example, some teams are predominantly office-based, while others have a high level of external face-to-face contact with customers.

It would therefore not have made sense to set one globally applicable carbon-reduction target. Hinds took the more meaningful approach of sitting down with teams and helping them to set realistic carbon-reduction targets. These could range from 3% to 50% depending on the team’s travel profile.

For the first year, teams were given the leeway to set their own targets and the organisation set a corporate carbon-reduction goal of 17% – which was exceeded when a 25% reduction was recorded at the end of the 12-month period. “When people embraced the concept they realised that there were a lot more opportunities to reduce their carbon footprint than they had realised,” says Hinds.

There are many inspirational stories of individuals embracing the new sustainable travel plan. For example, the director who drove a four-wheel-drive vehicle and was initially hostile to the proposals, switched to rail travel and video-conferencing, and became the scheme’s biggest advocate. From the project’s early days the carbon footprint of all senior managers was reported monthly on the intranet to help convey the message that the new travel plan applied equally to all.

There were also examples of employees improving their work–life balance as well as their productivity – such as the land-management advisers who swapped their cars for trains and folding bikes, and as a result managed to cover a bigger land area.

As soon as a culture of people being committed to choosing more sustainable travel options had been established at Natural England, the organisation moved to a “carbon budget” approach. Since 2009–10 each team has been allocated a budget for carbon use according to their travel profile. Teams can give away part of their carbon budget and regularly do so, motivated by the kudos of coming in on budget.

Making it possible

Encouraging staff to hold remote meetings rather than face-to-face ones will not work in practice without the sophisticated technology required to support alternative options, such as video- and teleconferencing.

Fortunately, when introducing the new travel plan, Natural England was in the process of renewing its telephony system anyway, and the supplier agreed to include video- and teleconferencing as part of the contract. Hinds points out that it was important to provide adequate support for staff while they got used to using the video- and teleconferencing equipment.

“Taking part in a meeting remotely is a very different skill to sitting in the same room as people and being able to read their body language. It needs practice and support from the organisation to make it work,” he explains.

The organisation did make one significant investment in technology hardware – fast rail ticket machines costing £100,000. These were purchased following considerable anecdotal feedback from staff complaining of long queues picking up tickets from railway stations. Hinds says that the machines are very well used, with other organisations located in some of the same office buildings also making use of them. It also spent up to £20,000 on bikes – some folding, some mountain for travelling in more remote areas – which are available free for use by employees.

Proof of the success of the sustainable travel plan is the statement that most employees have adopted at the bottom of their email, explaining that they will not travel to a meeting unless absolutely necessary. Other critical success factors for the project were the setting of an ambitious, attention-grabbing carbon-reduction target, and strong leadership from senior management.

Hinds’ advice to other organisations? The key to success is giving people ownership of the project and engaging them rather than imposing a top-down solution.

In partnership with SOS

To demonstrate that reducing the carbon footprint of business travel could lead to productivity and financial gains, Natural England commissioned the support of SOS (Sustainable Opportunity Solutions). A business advisory practice with financial auditing and environmental expertise, SOS took a full-cost accounting approach to estimate the financial gains from Natural England’s carbon-reduction achievements.

SOS compiled a huge data set and applied its own sustainable travel assessment tool to quantify the savings made. By December 2010, SOS was able to report an impressive range of results, including:

  • £2.1 million in efficiency savings;
  • £1,800 returned per tonne of carbon saved;
  • £700,000 estimated benefit from improved staff productivity and reduced subsistence costs;
  • 11% modal shift to rail use; and
  • 89% overall reduction in travel through avoidance measures.

For more information, contact Paul Adderley at SOS by emailing: [email protected]. Paul Hinds is happy to discuss Natural England’s sustainable travel plan in more detail. Please contact him at [email protected]


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