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Voluntary or compliance-driven investments are used to create and support virtual interaction networks that reduce emissions from air travel



CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Ignotus the Mage via flickr

  • Current levels of aviation emissions are unsustainable, yet demand for air travel continues to rise and sustainability will not be achieved through offsets or foreseeable technological innovations.

  • Work-related travel accounts for ~40% of air travel and offers abundant opportunities for substitution with virtual communication.

  • Technologies that support high-quality virtual interaction exist, but potential for travel replacement is hindered by inadequate development of the socio-cultural and organizational systems necessary to maximize benefit.

  • Many people/organizations—called here pioneers—are motivated to reduce travel but encounter economic, organizational, and socio-cultural obstacles.

  • Other people/organizations—called here benefactors—are unwilling or unable to change their travel habits, but are motivated to demonstrate social responsibility (or to comply with emission regulations) by paying to offset their emissions.

  • A non-profit organization, Beyond Getting There, will reduce work-related air travel by directing revenue from transfer of travel reduction credit to support installation and capacity building for effective use of virtual interaction by networks of organizations. The program will:

    • provide an benefit transfer mechanism that will reduce total air travel emissions by enabling cooperation between the benefactors motivated to pay and the pioneers willing to take the professional and organizational risks in adopting more sustainable modes of communication and interaction.

    • push the envelope of common paradigms for virtual interactions—expanding beyond formal meetings to include trust-building activities such as informal and serendipitous interactions, eating and drinking together, and virtually-connected excursions.

    • have a multiplicative effect over time as the culture and norms of work travel change due to increased availability of the social and technological infrastructures necessary to make virtual interaction a more attractive alternative to travel.

What actions do you propose?

MOTIVATION: Unsustainable rise in aviation emissions, no promising technical or offsetting fix

Air travel generates large quantities of greenhouse gas emissions that have approximately twice the warming impact of ground-level emissions (Gössling, 2009); e.g., just two round-trip journeys between New York and Paris are associated with approximately the same climate impact as an average American’s car travel for an entire year (Jones & Kammen, 2011; Current levels of aviation emissions are unsustainable, yet demand for air travel continues to rise and sustainability will not be achieved through foreseeable technological innovations (Anable & Boardman, 2005; Davies & Armsworth, 2010; Gössling, 2009).

Voluntary carbon offset programs are currently advertised as a means to compensate for travel-related emissions, but are often criticized because of inconsistent and incomplete in carbon accounting; challenges related to permanency, maintenance costs, and finite capacity; and social and environmental justice issues (Bonnett, 2006; Broderick, 2009; Gössling, 2009; Lester, 2007). Perhaps most importantly, many offset programs do nothing to reduce demand for air travel; on the contrary, they disincentivize structural changes that would reduce demand and may even increase emissions in the long run by relieving guilt for those who are concerned about environmental impacts (Broderick, 2009; Anderson, 2012; Lester, 2007).

Here we describe an economic mechanism that supports innovative uses of virtual interaction technologies to actually reduce the demand for air travel by shifting perceptions of when travel is required or desirable.

OPPORTUNITY: Investment in systems to support virtual interaction

Abundant opportunities exist to significantly reduce aviation emissions through the substitution of some work-related air travel with virtual interaction. Existing technologies already make high-quality virtual interaction accessible, but organizations often lack the technical and organizational know-how to realize the benefits of these technologies. Even when funding is available to implement virtual interaction, these systems often fail to reduce air travel because 1) the social and organizational infrastructure necessary to provide a high-quality virtual experience is lacking, and 2) travel decisions are not integrated into a framework that includes accounting for environmental costs. The program proposed here seeks to eliminate these barriers through the innovative use of virtual technologies, and through the promotion of accounting systems that incorporate environmental costs and facilitate collaborative transfer of costs and benefits between stakeholders.

PROGRAM FOCUS: Innovation in virtual interaction

The virtual interaction we envision differs substantially from typical uses of videoconferencing and other desktop-based solutions. Perceptions that virtual interactions are not adequate substitutes for travel-based interaction are fueled by negative experiences that are mostly due to suboptimal use of  available systems. Often the quality, ubiquity, customizability, and reduced cost of many technologies is left unexploited. For example, planned and spontaneous social interactions that serve to build trust and group identity are lacking in typical virtual interactions, so the value of such interactions drives the demand for face-to-face meetings.

Currently-available technologies do permit informal and serendipitous interactions, but are rarely used to support virtual interactions. Furthermore, innovative human and organizational systems to apply virtual systems to these ends have not yet been developed or widely implemented. Our program will develop and support hybrid technical-human systems that afford a variety of high-quality formal and informal virtual interactions. Technical systems include telepresence rooms to support more naturalistic virtual formal meetings; virtual ‘portals’ to common areas like break rooms to facilitate ‘water cooler discussions’; informal telepresence rooms where remote pairs or small groups can enjoy coffee, meals, or drinks together; remotely-controlled telepresence robots that allow for ‘walk-throughs’ and ‘dropping in’; and eyeglass-mounted systems that allow groups of remote individuals to take excursions together (e.g., walks, bird-watching) while maintaining a constant audio link and sharing real-time photos or video. The human and organizational systems needed to support these technologies include convenient scheduling systems; regular opportunities to receive communication, leadership and management training; technical assistance with system configuration, maintenance, and updates; planning and facilitation assistance prior to, during, and following formal and informal interactions; assistance with the administrative overhead inherent in interaction at a distance; and logistics coordination to provide food and beverages.

PROGRAM FOCUS: Motivating collaboration between stakeholders

Offset programs, while problematic for the reasons discussed above, are based upon the valuable notion of transferring revenue from individuals or groups whose activities cause environmental harm to other individuals or groups who make use of these funds to reduce the environmental cost of their own activities. The former group—referred to here as benefactors—are motivated to compensate for some of the environmental costs of their activities. The second group—pioneers—are motivated to forego some perceived benefits of the current system and bear the risks associated with early adoption of less environmentally damaging systems. Virtual interaction, when used innovatively, offers promising alternatives to many kinds of work travel, but potential pioneers may be hindered in acquiring and using such systems by the substantial economic costs and lack of the network of co-adopters necessary to realize potential benefits. Potential benefactors currently have no opportunities to invest in travel replacement systems, thus their considerable willingness to pay (Brouwer, Brander & van Beukering, 2008) is often wasted or directed toward less effective programs. The value of our approach is that it provides mechanisms by which stakeholders with varied motivations, risk tolerances, and economic means can collaboratively distribute costs, risks, benefits and rewards for finding solutions to ‘wicked’ environmental problems.


Beyond Getting There, a non-profit organization

This project involves establishment of a non-profit organization—Beyond Getting There (BGT)—to create and manage opportunities for collaborations between pioneers and benefactors.

Initially, BGT will solicit donations/investments to fund the establishment of pilot virtual interaction networks (VINs). Beginning with the pilot phase and continuing thereafter, VINs will be selected through a competitive granting process. Evaluation criteria include potential for air travel reduction within the network (i.e., existing patterns of travel-based interactions); existence of facilities that can be outfitted for virtual interaction; existing technical/organizational readiness (including attitudes toward replacing air travel with virtual interaction); and potential for additional gains through integration with existing or future networks. Once VIN sites have been selected, program staff will collaborate with technology and research partners to identify and install the most appropriate technologies for each site, and create and maintain the human and organizational support systems. Program staff and collaborator involvement will be intensive during VIN establishment, but eventually the BGT program staff involvement will focus primarily on training, program accounting, and evaluation; freeing BGT staff to focus their efforts on bringing new sites online.

Once a round of initial investment has been used to establish pilot sites, the environmental benefits accrued through travel reductions by pioneer VINs will be shared with benefactors. Distribution of benefits will depend upon the nature of initial funding mechanisms (voluntary or compliance-motivated) and viability of strict emission accounting for the program. Benefactors will receive information about return on investment (e.g., unit of travel reduction per unit of investment) and this information will be instrumental in motivating additional pioneers and benefactors to join the program (voluntary or compliance-based). At maturity, the program will be financially self-sustaining (details in timeline).

PROGRAM FOCUS: Travel demand modeling and accounting

Travel reduction metrics will be based on VIN-specific models of travel demand based on past levels of travel, budget constraints, number of employees, rate of travel by similar organizations, regional or sector-specific demand, broader trends in aviation and business travel to make short-to-medium term projections under a business-as-usual (BAU) scenario. Then, an agreement will be negotiated between BGT and the VIN organizations regarding reduction targets with respect to BAU projections. This agreement will evolve over time, with lower levels of reductions during the early phases of the program, and higher levels of reduction once the system is well-established. BGT will assist with setting up a travel accounting system and decision framework to achieve the target reductions. Rate of use of virtual facilities will be monitored but will not enter into the calculation of emission reductions.

Incentives to reduce travel beyond established targets will also be built into the agreement, with BGT committing to cover a greater portion of staff and maintenance costs for sites that exceed their goals. VINs will commit to allocate a portion of their saved travel costs to cover the costs of technical and facilitation staff and system maintenance to ensure long-term sustainability. Usage rates that are above expectations will be documented for use by the pioneer organization to bolster ‘sustainability credibility’ and demonstrate leadership in changing the culture of travel.

Establishment of robust modeling and accounting mechanisms will be key to the success and transparency of the program. Beyond accounting for travel-related emissions, technology-related environmental impacts, and frequency of virtual system use, BGT will also track experiences and satisfaction of the individuals involved to ensure that the program is meeting its goals of shifting perceptions regarding the viability of virtual interaction as an alternative to travel.

Now is a good time to go Beyond Getting There

Success of the ambitious program outlined here will depend on a skillful use of advanced technological systems, innovative and well-coordinated human systems, cultural and attitudinal change, and well-designed strategies for tapping into current willingness to pay for carbon mitigation. Despite the challenges associated with such an endeavor, there are reasons for optimism. First, there is encouraging evidence that well-planned and managed efforts to use virtual interaction to reduce travel dependence do significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and also accrue economic and social benefits (e.g., Anderson & Anderson, 2009; Orsi, 2012; Strengers, 2014). Furthermore, calls for action on this issue have grown in tandem with other practical strategies that could reduce air travel emissions (e.g., Grémillet, 2008; Lester, 2007; Nevins, 2014; Favaro, 2014; Fox, et al. 2009; Le Quéré et al., 2015).

Finally, research into attitudes toward policies that would limit work-related travel suggest that many people are willing to accept modest sacrifices in exchange for the large environmental benefits associated with reduced air travel (Reader’s Poll; Le Quéré, 2015). This confluence of factors makes now a perfect time to invest in programs aimed at reducing air travel emissions.

Who will take these actions?

Initial supporters and program developers

Initial supporters/funders will help BGT develop a management team, establish collaborations with technology and research partners who will design and manage pilot and full-scale network implementations and accounting and marketing systems.


Under a voluntary scenario, benefactors could be motivated to participate by a desire to demonstrate social responsibility and build a ‘sustainable’ image. Effective marketing would motivate benefactors who wish to go beyond ‘greenwashing’ to pay a premium price per unit of emission reduction. Under a compliance scenario such as the Market Based Measures program currently being considered by the ICAO, BGT would offer attractive mechanisms for achieving required emissions reductions.


Organizations that use air travel extensively and wish to take a leading role in changing the culture of work travel (e.g., environmental organizations, ‘green’ businesses, universities, government agencies and entities) will apply to participate in the virtual network program. These pioneer organizations will be motivated to take meaningful action that aligns with their values, bolster their ‘sustainability cred,’  and achieve economic, diversity and visibility benefits. VINs would realize significant savings through reduction in travel expenses, and agreements with BGT would require commitment of only a portion of those savings to running, maintaining, and upgrading their virtual facilities. Although VINs won't be able to claim the emission reductions as their own—these benefits will be distributed to benefactors—they will be able to use their participation in the program to demonstrate commitment to addressing the root of an environmental problem (rather than making superficial changes), to promote their image as an agent of change, to support a greater diversity of participation, and to take advantage of the additional levels of communication possible through virtual interaction.

Where will these actions be taken?

Actions taken by initial supporters and funders need not be tied to a particular location. VINs will serve as links within or between businesses, educational institutions, government entities, non-profit organizations, etc. Applications for initial networks of sites will be solicited broadly, but initial virtual network development and implementation will be constrained to relatively limited geographic regions. Early pilot implementations will be best done for relatively small networks linking places that already have frequent travel-based interactions and that span no more than 3-4h time zones. As the program matures, team members will gain the know-how and financial resources required to link more distant places or between existing networks. Emission reduction benefits will be greater as more distant places are linked, so large geographic range is an important longer-term goal of the program.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Flight emissions currently make up ~3% of global emissions, and are expected to grow to 9% by 2050. Radiative forcing associated with flight emissions is approximately double that for ground level emissions. As much as 40% of air travel is work-related, so substantial reductions in work-related air travel would have a sizable effect on global emissions (Davies & Armsworth, 2010).

While the goal of the program is not to reduce work-related travel to zero, a very substantial reduction is possible, even after accounting for virtual technology emissions. Specifically, estimates of actual or potential emissions reductions include emissions (or savings) of between .7 and 2.2 mtCO2 per conference participant (Anderson, 2009; Nevins, 2014), and 2.34 mtCO2 savings per travel-replacing telepresence meeting (Davis & Kelly, 2008). For comparison, driving a vehicle that gets 22 mpg for 1000 miles (~1600 km) generates approximately .5 mtCO2.

What are other key benefits?

In addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, many co-benefits will be realized through a transition from heavy reliance on travel-based interactions to frequent use of virtual interaction to replace travel. Numerous studies have documented the economic benefits accrued when travel costs are reduced or eliminated and loss of productivity during travel is avoided. Flying is also associated with health risks, especially for vulnerable individuals, and these can be avoided if travel is not required. Multiple social benefits have also been observed, including opportunities for participation by a much more diverse group of people who might be unable to travel due to health status, personal commitments, travel restrictions, and financial concerns.

What are the proposal’s costs?

This project will require substantial investment during the first 10 to 15 years of the program. Costs to install and support initial virtual network systems on the scale necessary to have substantial impact would likely be in the range of $10 million per year for the first 5 years, and then would decline over time as networks use travel savings to cover their own maintenance and staffing costs, and revenue begins to be generated through transfer of credit for emission reductions. Program costs would initially include purchase and installation of technical equipment, training costs and wages for technical and facilitation support staff, development and implementation of an accounting system to track travel, virtual system use, and transfer of reduction credits. Ongoing costs throughout the lifetime of the project would include personnel costs for BGT staff who work on network development and management, maintain partnerships with other organizations, and perform accounting duties related to emission reduction tracking and transfers. These ongoing costs are expected to be covered by program revenue as the project matures.

Time line

In early years, the project will assemble a management team, establish a business model, establish partnerships, recruit organization networks for pilot implementations, recruit and train initial technical and facilitation teams, and design and test prototypes.

Years 5 to 15 will see the launch of fully operational networks of sites. BGT will begin generating additional revenue based on travel reductions accrued during the pilot phase and prepare for full-scale marketing with new partners as larger-scale networks come online. After initial investments in technologies and training, management costs for networks will go down while revenue from travel reduction benefit transfers goes up. Because of difficulties with making long-term projections for BAU scenarios, revenue generated through transfer of emission reduction credits for a particular VIN would expect to ‘sunset’ after approximately 7-10 years due to increasing uncertainty in BAU projections, so new VINs will be implemented to maintain revenue streams. By the end of this phase, the organization will transition to a self-sustaining model in which revenue from emission reduction exceeds support costs and is invested in launching new networks.

Beginning year 15, existing regional networks will be linked into larger global networks. As interactions expand, BGT will seek partnerships to provide additional services required to support virtual interactions across far-away time zones. Because participants in such interactions will need significant ‘adjustments’ to an agreed-upon time zone, these partners will assist in providing accommodations, meals, and other hospitality services required to allow participants to live ‘outside their time zones’ while remaining in their home area. BGT will also develop virtual ‘hub’ facilities that allow hosting of distributed, hybrid virtual and face-to-face conferences. By year 50, the cultures of work-related communication and travel will have changed significantly.

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