The global engineer

Dea Birkett breaks a promise to herself and writes about 'green' travel.

I'm about to break a promise to myself. I promised that I would never write about green business travel. That's because I regard most eco initiatives as little more than cynical attempts to induce guilt. 

Then once they've made us feel guilty for flying 4,000 miles to an essential meeting, they offer to assuage it by making us sign a 'carbon neutral' slip in the air-conditioned bar afterwards. Rather than pride itself on promoting international relations, the business travel industry now feels obliged to continually say it's sorry.

The recent Business Travel Show in London adopted this apologetic stance. Housed at the gigantic barn-like Earls Court exhibition centre, it boasted of being 'carbon neutral', as the CO2 emissions produced from three days of mega heating, lighting and waste would be balanced out by purchasing carbon offsets. The beneficiaries would be the Bhambarwadi wind power project, supporting 16 wind turbines in India, and the Guizhou hydro power project in China. With all this spotlighting of good eco credentials, I imagined business travellers wandering around, heads hung in shame, hiding their air miles in their passport pouch.

But the absurdity didn't stop with these travellers' stooped shoulders. As is customary at these trade events, each company's stand had a little gift to give away to potential customers, usually a logoed pen or a mouse mat. But the stand for The CarbonNeutral Company, one of the show's sponsors, had an unusual giveaway. Bottled water from an Icelandic glacier.

The company's argument is simple - or, I would argue, simplistic. As bottled water is going to be produced anyway, packaged in little plastic containers, it might as well be produced with eco credentials. They claim Icelandic H2O Glacial has a 'net zero carbon footprint', achieved through sourcing local energy suppliers, restricting company flights by using video-conferencing, reducing packaging and recycling waste.

But I don't think that's any argument at all. Bottled water isn't like air travel. The alternative to flying to Bangkok doesn't really bear thinking about, as it would probably be a banana boat. And it's unreasonable to expect people to stop flying. I believe it's not only unreasonable, but wrong.

In all the debate around the evils of cruising at 30,000ft, we lose sight of the benefits of leaving our own land behind. Travel is, at its most basic, a form of communication between cultures, and that includes business cultures. There's nothing quite like seeing how your equivalent in an Asian company, for example, will greet and host you. We begin to understand each other's culture of work, as well as play. This understanding brings fresh ideas, new ways to approach and solve problems. It's no coincidence that repressive regimes, such as those in the former Soviet Bloc, virtually outlawed citizens travelling abroad.

But bottled water isn't the same sort of thing at all. There's a clear alternative that will make no difference: drinking water from a tap. And dare I suggest that there might even be a very good alternative to attending the Business Travel Show - being emailed a list of the exhibitors and having a virtual show, where all information was accessed on line.

The search for genuine green

Cynical about how watering down my elderflower cordial with water, sourced from the Olfus Spring in south west Iceland, would make any difference to the future of our world, I determined to find a green business travel solution which actually made an impact.

It was easy with accommodation. I discovered that, if the literature is to be believed, there is barely a business hotel that isn't committed to saving the Earth. The Grand Hyatt Dubai has converted its main water heating system from diesel oil-fired to solar-powered. This doesn't stop the UAE being the second largest emitter of CO2 per capita in the world. In the UK, members of the Considerate Hoteliers Association are working towards becoming environmentally friendlier, including such grand establishments as the Cavendish in London. Even whole cities now claim to be the best place for business and leisure. Stockholm has just won the first Green European Green Capital Award.

Finding eco-friendly transport was trickier. I was told to go by rail, but a train to China is the stuff of a Paul Theroux book, not a commercial meeting. If you're only going to the other side of town, you could take a ride on an electric scooter such as those from Gnewt. They are appealingly simple; the sealed electric motors and batteries have no moving parts. To refuel, you just plug the scooter into a standard three-pin socket at work, home or at one of the on-street charging points. People needing to make a large delivery could instead drive a Modec - the world's first zero-emission delivery van in its class, already used by Tesco, UPS, FedEx and CenterParcs.

 Airlines are feeling the eco pressure, vying with each other to produce a more efficient form of flying. In this scramble, it's easy to forget that only two per cent of the total CO2 emissions from fossil fuels come from flying, and only 15 per cent of the total of emissions produced by all forms of transport. Still, Korean Air has adopted a 'continuous descent' approach for its flights into Seoul - rather than the usual throttle-intensive 'stepped' descent - thus reducing CO2 emissions during landing.

These are all measures to be applauded. But amongst all these guilt-induced initiatives, let's not forget that travel is good for us. It's good for building and maintaining understanding between different cultures, and therefore it is good for the planet. We should do it as responsibly as possible. And those who do shouldn't have to hang their heads in shame.

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