The silver lining amidst the trauma and tragedy of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was the 7% decrease in carbon emissions worldwide — 2.4 billion fewer tons than in 2019 — that accompanied quarantines, lockdowns and the resulting decrease in travel. With vaccination rates picking up in developed states, the return to international travel threatens a return to pre-pandemic carbon production levels in international development, a field that prides itself on sustainability.
The lessons learned from telework in the past year have provided all sectors with the tools to continue to work effectively while maintaining a lower carbon footprint. Applying these lessons learned at three levels of decision-making — the individual, organizational and funder levels — will help ensure that the development community continues to improve its efforts to be environmentally sustainable.
Is Travel Now a Game of Russian Roulette?
The 1990s gave us the question, “Could this meeting have been an email?” The 2020s will give us the equally impactful “Could this trip have been a Zoom meeting?” Yet many in government, business and international development communities are itching to return to international travel. Some countries have gone as far as to start promoting themselves as COVID-safe hubs for international meetings. While these hubs are attractive for relationship management and stewardship efforts, increased travel to these spots will result in a larger global carbon footprint.
The international development community’s commitment to mitigate and adapt in order to prevent climate change demands a moment to pause and reconsider what concrete steps can be taken to slow the return to pre-pandemic levels of carbon emissions. The most notable change is the dependence on international air travel, a common practice in the international development space that undermines a collective commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. International development practitioners should continue to embrace new technologies that make international travel less necessary, reducing both the impact on the environment and the project costs.
Managing the carbon impact of the international development community requires a multilevel commitment involving individuals, implementing organizations and funders. Until multilateral institutions and governments set clear guidelines and regulations, individuals and organizations are going to have to take the initiative to change behaviors.
For most international development practitioners, setting personal limits on international travel at the individual level is the easiest way to limit carbon impact. This requires practitioners to learn about the impact of their travel on the environment; set limits on their own travel by number of flights, volume of carbon or miles traveled; and to communicate these personal limits to the organizations and stakeholders with whom they work. Individuals setting reasonable personal limits on professional and personal travel will help build a culture of accountability.
This cultural shift will also require implementing organizations to model best practices by setting limits on international travel and carbon production. While these limits can be set by individual, region or project, the most important element is tracking and holding team members accountable for their environmental impact. Furthermore, organizations should create clear guidelines for what particular activities and processes require a partner visit to be in-person. Project timelines should be built in a way that allows activities that require travel to be accomplished together on perhaps slightly longer, but less frequent trips.
Finally, institutions funding international development work ought to use the power of the purse strings to limit the carbon impact of international development programming. Be it governments, nonprofits or the private sector, funders ought to restrict the number of international flights that funding can be used to support per project. Normalizing these types of contractual commitments and building reporting practices and timelines that account for less travel will allow implementing organizations and individuals to maintain their commitments to preventing carbon emissions.
Common practice and guidance from before the pandemic can still hold true in principle, but the way we think about the urgency and opportunity to mitigate climate change must shift to account for the new technologies and practices that have been put in place. Reduction of travel will see a magnified impact if organizations and individuals continue to adopt carbon offsetting measures for required travel.
Less international travel does not have to undermine relationship building and cooperation with international partners. Longer, less frequent visits and stronger capacity-building efforts related to cooperative technology platforms will do the job without the environmental impact of frequent, long-haul flights. Before putting your tray table into the locked upright position to meet in person, consider if meeting in a gallery view would suffice.