Today’s flying through tomorrow’s eyes

Sir David Attenborough gave powerful testimony to a UK parliamentary committee recently, arguing that we need to reduce the amount of global air travel to cut our carbon footprint. The irony that he has spent his career flying the world isn’t lost on anyone, but that really isn’t the point. A better challenge for those of us in the corporate world is to think about the changes we are all going to have to make and how they will shape the future of business.

What happens if, all of a sudden, it isn’t cool to fly? Until now to be a high flying executive with frequent flyer programme status and pampered by the airlines was something to aspire to. In the space of months it feels like there is a movement against this lofty ambition. At the same time as carbon emission initiatives are working their way across sectors, this is one challenge that touches almost all of us.

Airlines have been one of the most powerful forces for global understanding and business. Without them, we wouldn’t have the level of cooperation and trade across our globe that we do today. Also, by and large, airlines have been a force for good on social causes. But air travel has a big carbon footprint and we need to bridge this conflict.

The time to think about this is now. Our decisions today will be judged by society in the future by the standards they use of the time. Imagine a world where our personal carbon footprint is as visible as our LinkedIn profile and our Facebook activity. Maybe there will be a traffic light symbol against our name, with a total tons of carbon numerically displayed, for everyone to see. Imagine if this were to be created in 2022 and made retrospective to today!

We can assume that increasing pressure is going to drive the airline industry, and travel more broadly, to accelerate change. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are going to move even faster to lower and hopefully one day eliminate their emissions.

While it’s likely that travel will get to these low, or even zero, emissions with the same convenience as today, it is going to be some time before that happens. In the meantime, the way we travel for business seems likely to change. We will prioritise flying on more efficient aircraft and purchase more carbon offsets but this may not be enough.

We may even be prepared to compromise on some of the comforts of flying for some further marginal reduction in our footprint. But these are at the edges and, at the very least, further growth in global trade will need to hold or even reduce our current business flying to be sustainable and leverage the industries efforts to reduce our impact.

All of this means the way we do business will change. My own sector of professional services in particular has grown our use of air travel even faster than we have grown as a proportion of the economy. In countries such as my own home of Australia, professional services, as part of the broader business services sector, has been a huge driver of productivity growth and has outgrown the economy (For example see Structural Change in Australian Industry: The Role of Business Services).

Despite having the means, we largely choose to work in-person. We are casual rather than deliberate about how we travel and will have to share more of our expertise and information electronically in the future. This will challenge us to treat remote participants to meetings as being equal citizens (see Sometimes it’s lonely being a robot).

As I talked about last month, our recent report on the future of work shows that many of the assumptions we made about working trends have not yet materialised. One of the most significant surprises is that people aren’t working remotely. While our report focused on big cities and commuting into the office, the same can be said for how specialised knowledge is distributed in-person rather than from the home location of the expert.

The upside of seamless electronic collaboration is obvious, travel eats time and is also a distraction. It is easy to feel like you have achieved a massive amount when what you really have done is cover thousands of kilometres. I’m not alone in having George Clooney‘s portrayal of business in “Up in the Air” as one of my favourite movies simply for the familiar sense of comfort we get as road warriors from the routine of travel.

In an era when productivity gains have been hard to come by, the confluence of reducing our impact on the planet with the need to squeeze more from less could lead the best of us to do more by plugging-in rather than checking-in. The ultimate irony is that I’m writing these words from ten kilometres in the air as I prepare for a new week in different city to my own.

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