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In an essay on climate change, McKenzie Funk offers an ominous reminder to readers of the London Review of Books that ‘Climate change is and will be everywhere. It doesn’t stand apart from our daily existence, not any more.’

For those of us whose daily existence involves some business travel we need to take note, and urgently. Global business travel is increasing rather than decreasing. Some sources estimate spend on business travel will reach US$1.7 trillion by 2022, a steep rise from the US$700 million figure for 2005. As participants in organisations of all kinds (e.g. corporates, NGOs, governmental, charitable, SMEs) who are required to travel to meetings as part of our work, what should we do?

Concerns about the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere have been expressed since 1959. Yet, here we are, six decades later, with ever-growing concern and still not going all out to make the critical changes that we all need to make. Hoping and waiting for a deus ex machina to intervene on our behalf and sort out the problem is not an option because, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, there are now just 11 years left to keep global warming at a maximum rise of 1.50C. Anything above that figure will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, species loss, disruption of agriculture and food production (both terrestrial and marine), and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

So, what can we do?

Here is one suggestion: Reduce the environmental impact of business travel by embracing a “virtual meeting culture”.

Working virtually saves on travel time and costs; and, vitally, reduces carbon footprint. I am not suggesting that virtual meetings are the answer to climate change. Nor am I suggesting that virtual meetings can replace all face-to-face meetings. But, when set up correctly, they can be a highly effective alternative to face-to-face meetings.

The Swedish REMM project studied the impact of increasing the share of virtual meetings among public agencies whose business travel is limited to within Sweden. Findings after the first four years of running the project showed that CO2 emissions from travel per employee decreased by 10% on average. By contrast, emissions in non-participating agencies increased by 9% during the same period. Given the reductions that can be made, as demonstrated by the Swedish research, it is evident that the potential for reductions and savings (carbon footprint, costs, time) would be even greater for businesses and organisations where international travel for meetings is routine.

The REMM study reports other, perhaps less obvious, benefits of virtual meetings. These include increased efficiencies (including more time for more and better quality work), improved work-life balance, greater gender equality and improved health. Additionally, the unpredictability of travel is likely to become a greater issue with the increasing frequency of erratic climate events.

My own experience of working virtually is predominantly with small groups, teams and individuals. I have been working internationally for over a decade with people from more than 35 countries. While virtual protocols and processes will be different depending on the meeting purpose, the common factor is the creation of a safe and democratic virtual space where everyone feels able and free to contribute. This will depend – at least at first – on the experience and skill of the meeting facilitator. Some time ago I worked with a group of 5 people based in various locations in Denmark. We calculated the time, cost and carbon savings made by meeting virtually. Over four meetings we saved an estimated 4.45 metric tonnes of CO2e*, 191 hours of travel, and €4,840 in travel costs.

Aside from time, cost and carbon savings, developing virtual meeting cultures opens up new possibilities for creating even wider networks. Wider networks, in turn, facilitate the sharing of knowledge and learning across multiple boundaries (national, regional, disciplinary), and encourage an appreciation of other people’s work, cultures, and talents.

Working virtually can create intimate and profound reflective spaces, opening access to international perspectives, fresh ideas and new collaborations. The skills cultivated in the virtual space – especially the intense quality of listening – are transferable to all areas of work and life. In Nancy Klein’s words ‘listening ignites the human mind’.

From my own experience, it is not necessary for a business or organisation to have the best and most expensive technology in order to embrace a virtual meeting culture. But migrating meetings to the virtual space does require careful thought and positive positioning. The practice demands meticulous set-up and contracting, experienced facilitation, an open and positive mindset, and conscious efforts to enable all participants to be at ease with the chosen technology.

Making the shift to a virtual meeting culture is not easy but if organisations want to lead (and be seen to lead) the fight against climate change, making more of virtual meetings is a good place to start.

*CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent). This is a standard unit for measuring carbon footprint.


John is Executive Board Member of The International Foundation for Action Learning (IFAL). He has been working internationally for over a decade as a senior facilitator and executive coach with a wide range of organisations, groups and individuals from over 30 different countries.

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