While we all jumped at the opportunity to hold online meetings during the Covid pandemic, we have all realised the true value of face-to-face meetings. The one downside, of course, which we now know better than ever, is the environmental cost of travelling to meet together. Whether it’s travelling to another office in the same country or, as in our case, our quarterly Exec meetings held in a different location in Europe, there is a cost to the environment, an impact on time, and also an actual cost.

Task: calculate your carbon footprint and find the best compromise

For our ESA Executive Meeting, we usually choose a Central European city, usually Duesseldorf or Munich, as this is by and large a compromise in terms of travelling time for all participants. Ozan has the longest journey as he comes from Turkey, while Wolfgang and Simone are relatively close as they live in Germany. To get a better understanding of the environmental impact of our meeting in Munich last December, we were all tasked with calculating the carbon footprint of our journey, using any method we deemed appropriate, and finding alternative methods of transport with less impact on the environment. Our observations and conclusions were then presented at the meeting. This is just my overview. The rest of the Exec team went through a similar process.

Breaking the journey into stages

I began the task by breaking down my journey into stages. Taking a helicopter from home to Munich is largely frowned upon, so I had to resort to more traditional means of transport. Stage 1 consists of transport from my house in 74430 France to the nearest airport in Geneva, a journey of 62 km, which normally takes about an hour. Stage 2, from Geneva airport by plane to Munich airport, 488km by plane, 608km by car, and 581km by train; and Stage 3, from Munich airport to the centre of Munich, 36km by train or taxi. Of course, you also have to consider the reverse route. The detailed spreadsheet for those of you wishing to dig deep is held in the Members Area.

Choosing a calculation method

The first obvious task is to choose a method of calculating the kg of carbon dioxide produced by different methods of travel. After trying several different online platforms (all free of charge), I settled on a Danish company called Eco Tree. Mainly because their calculation platform appears to use something like Google Maps to calculate the distance and time taken via different methods of transport. It also breaks down, for example, the type of car used, whether it’s an electric, hybrid, diesel, or petrol vehicle, or, in the case of planes, whether you are travelling in first class or economy class. That’s right, I didn’t realise that travelling first class had a greater impact. It’s fair to say at this point that the CO2 figures for a plane journey are far higher if you use an independent calculation platform than if you use the airline’s calculation method. Lufthansa claimed that the plane flight would generate 73kg of CO2, while My Climate calculated 160kg and Eco Tree 148kg. I’m guessing that occupancy levels have a big influence, along with other variables.

Total carbon footprint calculation

Given unlimited time I could walk or cycle to the bus station (airport or train station) on stage 1. If I chose the bus this would involve three changes and takes four hours, or drive. I opted for the car out of convenience, as the bus runs irregularly and takes a long time, which resulted in 21kg of CO2 by car.

The second stage, if I were to consider a realistic option with the lowest impact, would be the electric train. Considering this is a distance of 580km, the CO2 calculation was 3kg compared to the plane at around 150kg, a huge difference. The downside, however, was that the journey takes about 10 hours, with some changes depending on the route. I took the plane for convenience and time constraints.

The last stage into Munich city centre was a choice between a taxi, bus, or train. The train had the least impact (1kg compared to 10kg for the car) and was quite convenient given that the hotel for the meeting was nearby. I opted for the train to the city centre only to find that the trains were on strike!

Overall the most practical method (my normal route) was a car to the airport, plane, taxi, and reverse, for a journey of 5 hours and a CO2 impact of 350kg. The lowest impact is always the train (I wasn’t aware of the huge difference), and this would be 32kg of CO2 but would take about 24 hours.


  • Attending a meeting by train has by far the lowest impact, about 100 times less than travelling by car or train. The downside, of course, is that the reliability of trains is affected by strikes throughout Europe, and the journey time is 4 to 5 times longer.
  • The method of calculating the amount of CO2 generated is still evolving and depends on the agenda of the creator. Airlines wishing to promote their green vision claim one thing, while advocates of sustainability claim vastly different, usually substantially higher figures for plane travel. There is no consistency or common ground, and if you search hard enough, you can find the answer you prefer.
  • Depending on how you want to offset your impact from travelling, the costs are surprisingly low. For my normal journey of 1200km and roughly 400kg of CO2, the average cost was 20 euros, but the cost varies from 5 to 35 euros per tonne.
  • Time constraints, more than anything else, have a huge impact. If you have all the time in the world, walking is relatively carbon neutral (apart from food, water, footwear, etc.), but the reality is that business constraints on time mean that the most time-efficient route is by far the preferred option.
  • Most online calculation methods are keen to sell you something. In this instance, Eco Tree, which I used, offers you the opportunity to offset your impact by investing in trees in France or Denmark. This particular company happens to have a plantation near to where I live, 100km away at Ajoux, so I have visited it and was actually able to see their operation. However, it’s a little bit like sponsoring a donkey in Morocco; you’re never actually too sure which one is yours.

Would we still have face-to-face meetings?

Yes, absolutely, but we are mindful of the impact, and as the cost of offsetting is relatively low, we have set aside a budget to mitigate the impact of our ESA meetings. We have not yet decided on an organisation to partner with and are open to suggestions.

Of course, the lowest impact on the environment is not to travel at all.

Mark Neal,

Secretary General of the ESA