A poster at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in 2020 © Getty Images

New lockdowns make for a grim start to the year but the brilliance of the vaccine scientists will probably mean a return to flying in 2021. Many business travellers gagging to return to the departure lounges may have to wait, however. It’s not just that post-virus corporate cost-cutting will keep many travellers at home. It’s also that the environmental pressure against flying grew rather than shrank during last year’s lockdowns.

It was not what I expected. During more than 30 years of reporting I had noticed that bosses tended to jettison corporate responsibility pledges during downturns. I thought Covid-19 would mean a dilution of companies’ recent devotion to green issues.

It hasn’t happened. Investors are pushing companies harder on the environment than ever. Witness the shareholder pressure on ExxonMobil that last month resulted in the oil group announcing emission cuts — which were immediately denounced as inadequate. See, too, the departure of some senior executives at Royal Dutch Shell over frustration that the company wasn’t moving fast enough towards greener fuels.

Companies are not only re-emphasising their environmental goals post-Covid: they are linking them to their travel policies. Nestlé last month said that its “net zero” goal required not just changes in the way its agricultural suppliers operated but also a reduction in business travel.

Campaigners are aiming particularly at frequent flyers. A paper in the Global Environmental Change journal in November took issue with the statistic that there were 4.4bn passenger air journeys in 2018, which suggested that the equivalent of more than half the world’s population flew that year. Almost all those journeys involved return flights, or for those connecting at hubs, more than two flights, so the number of people flying was much smaller, the paper said. The evidence suggested that only 11 per cent of the world’s population flew during 2018 and at most 4 per cent internationally. “High emitter” frequent flyers, who made up just 1 per cent of the world’s population, were, the paper said, “responsible for 50 per cent of emissions”.

You could reject this criticism as unfair on several grounds. First, aviation accounts for no more than 2.5 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. Even when you add other damaging emissions, flying is responsible, by some estimates, for just 3.5 per cent of global warming activities. By contrast, industrial production accounts for 21 per cent and agriculture for 24 per cent, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The problem is that flying was expanding fast until last year’s shut down. In 2000, there were only 1.7bn passenger journeys. While business travel may be slow to come back once flying feels safe, a nine-country survey in October by management consultancy Oliver Wyman found that 63 per cent of people expected to fly on holiday as much or more than they did before the pandemic.

That a resumption of the flying boom will owe more to holidaymakers than business travellers may be another reason for the latter to feel unfairly targeted. There are two answers to that: first, business travellers are more likely to fly in premium parts of the cabin which, with the greater space they occupy, mean they are responsible for more of the aircraft’s environmental damage than those crammed in economy.

Second, life’s unfair. Environmental campaigners always choose prominent, apparently privileged targets. They aim at Starbucks, Nestlé or Unilever not because there aren’t worse offenders, but because these are the companies people have heard of. Apparently glamorous business travel is easy to mock. Many business travellers learnt during lockdown that much of the flying they did before was not necessary anyway, and they will now concentrate on trips that matter. That’s probably best, as neither green campaigners nor, more importantly, their bosses appear in the mood for much more.

Follow Michael on Twitter @Skapinker or email him at michael.skapinker@ft.com 

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