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In June, the University announced that a new Sustainable Travel Policy will go live in late 2021. What is it and why is it needed? We asked SRS Communications Manager Sarah Ford-Hutchinson to explain… with the help of some party snacks. 

Policies in the workplace are a bit like snacks at a party:  

  • they’re essential 
  • they need refilled often 
  • they attract people and can encourage them to stay.

I pay close attention to party snacks, and increasingly, to workplace policies. Beyond the dry roast titles and lightly salted text lies a document that is modestly trying to help you through your day; whether that’s booking leave, claiming back expenses, or booking travel.

Ah, travel. It’s been a while. If you used to travel for work – and expect to again soon – then there’s one new policy you’ll be interested in: a new Sustainable Travel Policy due to go live in late 2021. Just like a big plate of hot pastries at a party, this one’s worth lingering on… let me introduce you: Sustainable Travel Policy.

What is the Sustainable Travel Policy? 

When implemented in late 2021, the new Sustainable Travel Policy will ensure that environmental impact will become a key factor in deciding how – or even if – we travel for work. In a nutshell, it asks travellers to choose a method of travel that is lower carbon as well as cost effective.  

Here are the key points: 

  •  Greater emphasis on virtual meetings. If you don’t need to travel, don’t. Use alternatives such as virtual collaboration tools. This hugely reduces the carbon emissions associated with your activity. 
  • Make local travel lower carbon. If travelling locally, use active travel (walking and cycling) or public transport (buses and trains) before considering a taxi. Active travel has other benefits too: taking a break from screens improves your wellbeing and productivity. 
  • Don’t fly within mainland Britain. If travelling nationally – for example, to Manchester, Bristol or London – use trains and coaches rather than a plane as flights are the most carbon intensive. It’s still fine to fly if you’re then taking a connecting flight elsewhere, if you’re travelling to the Scottish Isles, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland, or for another valid reason, such as to ensure wellbeing for travellers with a disability or caring responsibilities. 
  • Reduce your footprint when travelling internationally. Some European destinations are easy to reach by train. Where flying is required, use economy (unless for health reasons or disability) as it reduces the carbon emissions of your seat.

The policy will also standardise the travel booking process, bringing together a number of existing systems – including authorisation, risk assessments and insurance – into a single online travel management tool. 

Finally – and very importantly – where emissions from travel cannot be removed, the University has committed to sequestering this carbon in order to reach our zero by 2040 target. We’re currently looking at the most appropriate ways of sequestering our carbon. Staff shouldn’t use third-party sequestration and offsetting services in the meantime: carbon sequestration at the University.

Why do we need it? 

The clue is in the name.  

In the years before the Covid-19 pandemic – during which travel pretty much stopped – our travel pattern was becoming financially and environmentally unsustainable, growing by up to 15 per cent annually between 2012 and 2019. In 2018-19, we created more than 18,000 tonnes of carbon emissions (CO2e) and spent over £11 million on travel (excluding additional costs such as accommodation, visas, event fees and food): University Business Travel Report.

As well as a significant expense, travel is our third largest source of carbon emissions after electricity and gas. To meet the University’s net zero carbon by 2040 goal, we need to reduce the amount of travel we do, and also travel using lower-carbon methods of transport. 

This is called a climate conscious travel approach, where an organisation (or individual) considers the environmental, social and economic impacts of travelling, weighing these against the expected benefits of travelling.  

Professor Sandy Tudhope, University Lead on Climate Responsibility and Sustainability, explains: “Our new Sustainable Travel Policy will help us travel responsibly whilst on our mission to make the world a better place. Although the experience of the pandemic is demonstrating the potential of online platforms in teaching, research and impact, it is also clear that some air travel is essential to support our work as a leading University, with international students, staff and partnerships.

“The Policy aims to help us make wise choices about our travel: avoiding it if suitable alternatives exist and minimising the carbon emissions of travel where it is essential. By providing data on carbon emissions and on options, and guidance on alternatives to travel, we seek to reduce our University’s overall emissions as much as practically possible. In this way we will help lead by example, including taking an important step towards meeting our commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.”

What do staff think about the new Sustainable Travel Policy? 

More than 1,000 staff were consulted on sustainable travel options since the beginning of 2020 via a consultation open to all staff, focus groups, town hall meetings and reviews by committees. This input helped shaped the Sustainable Travel Policy. 

Overall, staff strongly supported a move to a more climate-conscious approach to travel and 76 per cent of respondents to the consultation felt the proposals were “good” or “quite good”. 

On the whole, staff recognise that our approach to travel needs to change. 

James Smith, VP International says: “As an academic who has spent more than 20 years working with communities in Africa I recognise the importance of travel: to build meaningful collaborations, to undertake grounded research, to generate impact.

“A climate-conscious approach to travel isn’t a barrier to this, rather its a set of tools to help us weigh up the benefits and costs of travel – environmental, social and economic. A collective, more intentional approach to travel can make a significant contribution to the University’s Zero by 2040 Climate Strategy.” 

Staff also recognise the multiple benefits that come with greater emphasis on virtual collaboration, such as improvements to accessibility and reduced equity issues. 

Sarah Cunningham-Burley, University Lead on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion says: “The Sustainable Travel Policy can help support our efforts to reduce inequality. Alternatives to travel have flourished through necessity during the pandemic and this has, in some cases, led to greater inclusion – opening up access to conferences and meetings for example. With travel starting up again, the policy also clearly recognises that an individual may need to make alternative arrangements, for example because of caring responsibilities or access reasons.” 

Where can I find out more? 

More information will be released later in 2021 as we confirm how the policy will work in practice. In the meantime, visit the Sustainable Travel Policy webpages or contact the Department for Social Responsibility and Sustainability if you’d like to know more (or want to tell us your favourite party snack). 

Sustainable Travel Policy 2021 

srs.department@ed.ac.uk  

Photography: GettyImages