Carbon-Neutral Business Travel

By Jonathan Spira on 1 January 2008
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Business travelers have long known that travel takes its toll on body and soul.  But the toll it takes on our planet is rarely considered.  Every step of a business trip has an impact on the environment.  How much varies based on choices made, miles or kilometers flown or traveled, food consumed, and items purchased.  You may think this all beyond your control but the extent to which you can lessen the impact may surprise you.

Hydrogen escaping at the hydrogen fueling station

Hydrogen escaping at the hydrogen fueling station

Although I always believed I had a fairly highly developed sense of awareness about environmental responsibility and global warming, it turns out I was not as enlightened as I thought.  I discovered I had little idea as to how large a carbon footprint I left each year, with travels averaging 100,000 km in the air (21,000 kg carbon footprint), not to mention the impact of daily life, including driving a car, using air conditioning, and using electricity.  [A carbon footprint is the representation of the impact our activities have on the climate in terms of the total amount of greenhouse gases produced (measured in units of carbon dioxide).]

What can the business traveler do to travel both efficiently and in an ecologically sound manner?  For starters, an awareness of how one’s choices impact the environment is key.   One typical example : from London Heathrow to Central London by car gives off 13 kg of carbon dioxide (figure courtesy of Sustainable Travel International).  Sharing a car or cab would halve the carbon footprint.  But taking the Heathrow Express adds only 1.5 kg to the atmosphere.

This all adds up.  Travel-related activities account for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, according to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).  600 million tons of carbon dioxide are pumped into the air each year by the world’s 16,000 aircraft according to a 1999 report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Newer planes are more environmentally friendly but the individual business traveler can’t always dictate the type of aircraft.

This is where the concept of “carbon neutral” enters the picture for business travel.  Named the 2006 Word of the Year by the editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary, being carbon neutral involves calculating and reducing one’s carbon emissions.  A carbon-neutral state is reached when one balances any remaining emissions with green investments, usually by purchasing a carbon offset.

To counter carbon emissions, there are many things that the business traveler can do.  Many of these should be practiced at home as well.  These range from turning lights and air conditioning off in unoccupied rooms, thinking about waste disposal (recycling and composting), and considering environmentally friendlier ways of traveling. You can also plant trees.

According to the United States Climate Technology Cooperation (USCTCG) Web site, sponsored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for short haul flights, those less than 1500 miles, 15 trees should suffice; for longer trips, such as LHR JFK, as many as 80 trees will be needed.  If you don’t feel like going into the garden yourself, you can purchase carbon offsets from over 30 companies including Sustainable Travel International and Carbon Fund. They will plant the trees for you.  (You can calculate your personal carbon footprint at Sustainable Travel International or use the USCTCG calculator to calculate your greenhouse gas equivalencies.) The market for carbon offsets in the U.S. was over $100 million, according to the World Bank.

The corporate world is becoming far more aware of the need to travel green.  According to David Cush, senior vice president of global sales at American Airlines, corporate travel managers routinely request an airline’s green policy.  Kevin Maguire, president of the National Business Travel Association, told me that “a small but growing number of companies are examining the environmental impact of their business travel and considering programs to lessen or offset that impact.”

It doesn’t stop there.  The 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy were carbon neutral as was the 2006 FIFA World Cup held throughout Germany.  Companies as diverse as Whole Foods and Wells Fargo have purchased large quantities of renewable energy certificates in their efforts to be carbon neutral.

When dining out both at home and during a trip, one’s choices also impact the environment.  Food from very far away requires up to four times the carbon footprint than does local food.  Local food can be very carbon friendly although that’s not a hard and fast rule.  Eating out in London, lamb from New Zealand might give off 3 kg, fish from Hawaii, 2 kg. Look for FLOSH, or Fresh Local-produced Organic Sustainably Harvested cuisine.

The choice of car one rents or even the car service one uses during a trip also impacts the environment.  Hybrid rental cars can be found in most west coast cities including Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco as well as cities in the Northeast such as New York and Boston.  Business travelers coming to New York City can use OZOcar, an environmentally friendly car service that picks you up in a Prius or in a Lexus RX 400h (a car I reviewed in Business Traveler in the May 2007 issue).


Earlier this year, I received an invitation from BMW to spend a week in a new Hydrogen 7.  At the time, I didn’t know too much about the car or the technology although I recalled that BMW had previously tested a 750HL model five years ago with great success.

The BMW Hydrogen 7

The BMW Hydrogen 7

The Hydrogen 7, however, was no test vehicle. To the contrary, it’s the world’s first hydrogen-drive luxury performance automobile for everyday use.  Indeed, the Hydrogen 7 went through BMW’s normal product development process and is built alongside other BMWs as a normal production vehicle in the company’s Dingolfing plant.

BMW believes that liquid hydrogen is a viable candidate as a power source for cars 20 years down the road.   While there is almost no infrastructure right now to make and distribute liquid hydrogen, and the cost of doing so is rather high, that is beside the point.  Others may view gas-electric hybrids or electric cars as the future but that’s not the point either: if we all had a crystal ball, we wouldn’t have to engage in experimentation. We would know what to build for the future.  The truth is we don’t really know and BMW is contributing to the body of knowledge by putting a fleet of regular production cars on the road that just happen to run on liquid hydrogen.

This sort of experimentation not only yields better findings but it also creates discussion around the topic.

One thing, however, is undisputed. These cars don’t pollute. The only thing coming out of their tailpipes is water vapor.  In fact, BMW regularly hands out bottles of water at industry events with an unusual label.  It doesn’t say Evian or San Pellegrino. It simply says EXHAUST.

Although it’s a regular production vehicle, albeit with limited production (only 100 Hydrogen 7ers will be manufactured), BMW is not selling the car.  Rather, it is loaning the vehicle to individuals in government and business.  The first person to receive a Hydrogen 7 was Michael Glos, German’s minister for science and technology.  The next pioneer was Günter Verheugen, the vice president of the EU Commission.  Other Hydrogen 7 drivers include Christian Ude, the Lord Mayor (Oberbürgermeister) of Munich, Dr. Wilhelm Bender, chairman of Fraport, and Stuart Rose, the CEO of Marks and Spencer.

Celebrities have gotten into the act as well.  Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie arrived at the premiere of Ocean’s Thirteen in one;  Richard Gere and Sharon Stone used one for transport at the Cinema for Peace gala in Berlin; and several Oscar winners, including Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, whose film Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others) won the Oscar for best foreign film this year, arrived at the award ceremony in a Hydrogen 7er.  More recently, car fanatic Jay Leno took delivery of a Hydrogen 7er, which he will drive for a few months. Leno, who owns a substantial collection of automobiles, is known for his 20,000 square foot “green garage” in Burbank, California, where he uses giant steam and natural gas engines from the 19th century to transform his garage, which houses his collection, into a self-sufficient power station.

BMW invited me to join this group but there was a catch.  I live in New York and the Hydrogen 7ers were in California.  In fact, so was the refueling station (granted, there is another refueling station in Washington D.C. but that wouldn’t have helped me very much either).

California, here I come.

In the days before my trip, I found myself ever so more conscious about the use of energy.  Should I take the AirTrain to JFK? It’s the most fuel efficient way of getting there but getting to the AirTrain from my house is not very straight forward.  I didn’t know about OZOcar then but that too would have been an option.

What airline is green enough for me to use?  Based on some quick research, I found that American Airlines (see sidebar) has a very green record so that was easy enough.  What about offsetting my carbon footprint for the flight?  I consulted with Brian Mullis of Sustainable Travel International.  The organization’s Web site has a calculator which let me determine the amount of carbon offsets I needed to purchase.  My flight would use 1.7884 tons of CO2, the cost to offset this amount of CO2 would be $27.27, and this fee, called a MyClimate ticket, supports energy efficiency projects in developing countries.  85% of the fee goes to the project, the balance is for overhead.

In order to get maximum time with the Hydrogen 7er, I took American’s flight 201, departing at 06.45 in the morning with an arrival at 09.45 local time. I was glad I chose the first flight because we had some weather and ground traffic delays that resulted in arrival delays of over an hour.  Later flights, I found out, were also delayed.

It took over 90 minutes to get to BMW’s research facility in Oxnard, where the blue water metallic Hydrogen 7er awaited me.  I was greeted by Andreas Klugescheid, corporate communications manager from BMW’s Engineering and Emissions Test Center and John Lowery, who would be my personal care advisor (PCA) while I had the car.

Before handing over the key, I was to receive a thorough orientation on the use of the car and then some paperwork. All of the car’s systems were reviewed by John (who would be available 24×7 by phone in case I had any questions or problems) as this is no ordinary 7er Series.  For starters, most cars do not have a release valve on the roof (in case the system needs to release hydrogen).  The presence of this valve also means that the car could not – under any circumstances – be parked indoors.

This made me slightly apprehensive but I was assured that, unlike the Hindenburg, liquid hydrogen won’t explode although it will burn. In that regard, it is probably safer than gasoline if it spills.

The BMW's well-insulated hydrogen tank

The BMW’s well-insulated hydrogen tank

Most cars also don’t have a very large, very well insulated tank in the trunk of the car – a tank so bulky that the seats were moved up 4.5” and there is still a bulge visible behind the rear seats.  Liquid hydrogen must be kept at -423° F.  Only liquid helium, at -452°F, is colder.

In addition to the car’s satellite navigation system, it also had a separate GPS system, the kind which is used in corporate fleets where vehicles are tracked.  Any problem (a stall or failure to start, an accident, an operating system fault) would be reported to my PCA and the system regularly transmitted technical and automotive operations data for vehicle systems to BMW.

Since the 7er Series’ iDrive and satnav systems are older in design than the ones I am used to in my current BMW, I was also given instruction on their use.

Then came the paperwork.  This was no ordinary set of documents; it included a Vehicle License Agreement and a document stating that I had received the Safety Orientation.  (Of course the Hydrogen 7ers, were they to be available for sale, would probably cost in excess of half a million dollars each so I can understand BMW’s caution.)  And all I wanted to do is get in and drive.

We drove the car to the hydrogen filling station and topped it off.  I was handed the key, I plotted in a course for Newport Beach via the Pacific Coast Highway and off I went.

I didn’t know that I was about to become a celebrity of sorts myself.  As I made my way to down to the PCH, I marveled at how normal the car felt.  I started to forget about the telltale markings on the side, concentrating both on the road and the magnificent view, when I noticed people were waving and giving me the thumbs-up sign.

My destination was the Fairmont Newport Beach, a hotel with a green reputation to match the Hydrogen 7’s.  According to online mapping sites, the drive of ca. 110 miles should take me two hours.  With traffic, it actually took me closer to 3.5 hours and I was quite exhausted when I arrived as I had been in transit for over 15 hours at that point.

I had no sooner pulled up in front of the main entrance when I noticed a stream of people heading towards me – or was it towards the car.  The first to speak was the hotel’s general manager, who welcomed me and announced that the hotel’s policy of free parking for hybrid vehicles would be extended to cover hydrogen-powered cars.


In doing some background research, I learnt that, as a company,Fairmont Hotels and Resorts had become green before green became in vogue.  As far back as 1990, the chain had launched its Green Partnership program, including a policy on glass and paper recycling (think back that far – did you?).  Over 15 years ago, Fairmont created the now ubiquitous towel and sheet exchange program (you don’t change your towel at home EVERY day, do you?), placing cards in guest rooms offering to exchange only those towels which the guest leaves on the bathroom floor or in the tub.

The green view at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California

The green view at the Fairmont Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California

When you check in at a Fairmont in North America, the front-desk clerk uses a computer powered by wind generated electricity.  Fairmont purchases Eco-Logo certified wind power which results in a greenhouse gas reduction of almost 100 tons in one year.

If you have ever been to a meeting and wondered about the impact of too many Styrofoam cups on the environment, hotels are starting to recognize that they need to conserve more and waste less.  For business meetings, Fairmont offers its Eco-Meet program, which allows companies to host green events through the reduction of waste (disposable-free food and beverage service, something many of us would call using real glassware and china), organically and/or locally grown menu items, or what they refer to as eco-inspired meeting breaks.  The hotel also donates partially used and unused toiletry items such as shampoo to local shelters and provides in-room recycling.

As part of my green treatment and to recover from the traffic of the Southern California freeway, I made an appointment at the new Willow Stream Spa for a Generosity Massage.  Under this program, 10% of the profits from each treatment are donated to the local Adopt-a-Beach program, an initiative sponsored by the California Coastal Commission that helps protect and restore the California coastline.

After two days in Newport Beach, I needed to head towards Santa Monica for a day of meetings so I packed up the Hydrogen 7 and drove to the Fairmont Miramar Hotel Santa Monica.   A block from the ocean on Wilshire Boulevard, the Hydrogen 7 no doubt felt at home.  I did too, after seeing the ocean view from my room.

My meetings were within walking distance and, despite the fact that it was very un-L.A. to walk, I chose to do so, much to the amazement of my hosts, who seemed shocked, shocked that I did not drive the three blocks.  Some things may take longer to change.


BMW is a pioneer in the efficient, ecologically sound use of resources.  According to the Berlin Institute for Future Studies and Technology Evaluation (IZT), BMW manages its financial, ecological, and social resources five times better than the German economy.  This is not surprising as in 1973, BMW was the world’s first automobile manufacturer to create a department of Environmental Protection.  Over the past ten years, BMW has reduced its overall  energy consumption by 26% and the emission of CO2 by 24% per produced vehicle.  This comes from multiple innovations including the BMW plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which obtains 63% of its energy from methane gas from a nearby landfill. This allowed the plant to reduce its CO2 emissions in 2006 by 53,593 tonnes.  BMW has also reduced its water consumption per manufactured vehicle by 47% since 1996.

So it was not surprising when BMW, in September 2006, introduced the BMW Hydrogen 7.  The Hydrogen 7 is equipped with an dual-mode 12-cylinder engine based on BMW’s 12-cylinder 6.0-litre gasoline engine used in the 7er Series.  The 203.9”-long Autobahn cruiser came equipped with every conceivable option including BMW’s Comfort Seats, which feature 14-way power adjustment; Active Roll Stabilization, an active suspension control system designed to reduce body-roll, or lean, when cornering; Bluetooth wireless technology connecting the mobile phone to the car; Comfort Access, which allows the driver to leave the key in his pocket to unlock, start, and lock the vehicle; the iDrive cockpit controller; and the exceptional Logic7 Audio System, with Digital Signal Processing (DSP) and 13 speakers, providing the ultimate listening experience.

The Hydrogen 7 went through the regular BMW Product Development Process and was produced in Dingolfing, Germany, alongside other production BMWs including the gasoline-only 7er and the 5er .

With its fleet of production Hydrogen 7s, BMW hopes to generate support for hydrogen-drive vehicles in the short term and stimulate demand for a viable hydrogen infrastructure in the long term.  This first step could be history in the making.


American Airlines’ Fuel Smart program, which started in 2005, is intended to conserve fuel throughout the company across all employee workgroups.  Ideas for fuel savings have come from everywhere including pilots and maintenance personnel.  One captain suggested taxiing in on one engine, an idea that was adopted company wide. The second engine isn’t started until it’s needed for takeoff.  This idea alone saves the airline over $60 million in fuel costs.  The airline also purchased 12 high-speed tractors used for towing aircraft from the gates to hangars.  This brought the amount of fuel used to move an aircraft down to almost zero and American hopes to save 6.6 million gallons of fuel annually through this initiative.  In addition, each tractor helps save 235,680 pounds of NOx emissions on a yearly basis.

Installing winglets on Boeing 737, 757, and 767-300ER aircraft saves between 100 and 290 thousand gallons annually per aircraft with a corresponding reduction of 423,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Overall, American has increased its fuel conservation efforts to save 95 million gallons per year and thereby reduced its carbon dioxide emissions footprint by 1.9 billion pounds per year.

–Jonathan B. Spira is the Editor of Executive Road Warrior and Chief Analyst at Basex, a knowledge economy research firm.

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