Calls for NZ businesses to re-think work related travel following pandemic

A prominent businesswoman and a leading scientist are calling for New Zealand businesses to re-think work related travel in the wake of Covid-19.

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The lockdown has slashed traffic pollution by around three quarters. Source: 1 NEWS

Business leader Theresa Gattung says she wants to see businesses commit to a 20 per cent drop in face-to-face meetings as Kiwis head back to workplaces, many of which have now invested in more online technology.

“That investment’s already been made and it shouldn’t be squandered, it should be used to preserve and enhance the environment” Ms Gattung says.

The call comes as figures released under the Official Information Act reveal some of our environmental Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) have become increasingly reliant on air travel in recent years.

Scientific research companies NIWA, Scion, Manaaki Whenua and ESR all work to improve the New Zealand environment, but all have seen increases in air travel before the lockdown came into effect.

Between 2017 and 2019 the number of domestic flights taken by Scion staff jumped by more than 700.

In the same period the total number of flights taken by ESR staff increased by the same amount.

Carbon dioxide emissions produced by Manaaki Whenua (formerly Landcare Research) increased by more than 500 tonnes between 2016 and 2019.

In 2016 the organisation produced 1529 tonnes of carbon dioxide, by 2019 that climbed to 2051 tonnes, with more than 70 per cent of total emissions coming from flying.

During the same period at NIWA, flights taken by staff jumped by more than 1300.

Some CRI’s say while some of that travel was necessary, changes forced by Covid-19 have forced a re-think.

Manaaki Whenua CEO Richard Gordon says flight numbers increased because the company hired more staff, but that the organisation is committing to doing more of its work online from now on.

“I anticipate what I hope will be a long-term change at our organisation and others,” Mr Gordon says.

“We're never going to be able to get rid of travel all together, sometimes our people have to go to the Pacific islands or Fiordland or Antarctica, but there can be some significant reductions made.”

Mr Gordon says that change may not have come about if it wasn’t for Covid-19.

“I think the forced change has been good in the sense that people have gotten used to a change that we needed to make and wanted to make, but it was difficult to make without being forced.”

NIWA general manager of operations Helen Neil says while the nature of the organisation's work means workshops and some face-to-face meetings will still have to go ahead, the company is working on reducing its carbon footprint.

“NIWA had already been reviewing our carbon footprint and we have invested very heavily in information technology and virtual conferencing platforms,” she says”

University of Auckland's Professor Shaun Hendy spent the year of 2018 avoiding air travel to see how it would affect his carbon footprint, with dramatic results.

“For me as a scientist, as someone who travels quite a bit around the world it was actually my flying, so when not getting on a plane, I was putting a big dent in my own carbon footprint, I found I was able to cut my carbon footprint by about 90 per cent that year by looking for alternatives to flying.”

Professor Hendy says although air travel only makes up about three per cent of global carbon emissions, it's often one of the biggest contributors to individual businesses emissions, and an “important piece of the puzzle” in tackling climate change.

He says he’s surprised at the increases in air travel seen at some of our leading environmental CRIs.

“Science organisations should be really conscious of their emissions and they should be setting some of the most aggressive targets in cutting down emissions,” he says.

“People won't believe us if we're jetting around the world putting out carbon, it’s important the public have trust in us and we need to be seen to be leading the way.”

Theresa Gattung says businesses reducing work travel wouldn't just benefit the environment, as moving online could make businesses more efficient.

“Online meetings are way more productive. A five or six hour meeting on Zoom is exhausting, so you tend to think more about the structure of the meeting, you tend to focus on the key issues.”

She says if businesses can, they should adapt to a “mixed model” of working from the office and from home.

“I think it’s really important to seize the opportunity to take the best of the lockdown experience, the things that were refreshing. As we go ‘back to normal’ we can create a new normal.”