Low carbon travel: it matters!
With all that is currently going on in the world, we are sometimes left wondering if low carbon travel really matters. According to the recently published IPCC report, we need “rapid and deep and in most cases immediate GHG emission reductions in all sectors” to limit global warming to 2°C. Does shifting our mode of transportation as academics really reduce our climate impact? Dr. Agnes Kreil, recent PhD graduate at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich, researched this for 3.5 years and explains.
In her dissertation and on her twitter page, Kreil is clear about flying in academia: “emissions from academic air travel should be reduced because 1) flying is one of academia’s largest harmful contributions to climate change, and 2) aviation will not be carbon neutral in the near future”. Although it depends on your research discipline, method and the location of your academic institute, annual emissions of one researcher can reach 14 tons of CO2 from flight travel alone. Those academics within institutions, with plenty of funding, limited care obligations and further along in their career are on average responsible for more CO2 emissions than other academics.
Not just the climate impact is important to consider here. There are also social consequences to flying. Goodwin (2020) shows that flying to (climate) conferences, could reduce social acceptance of climate change mitigation policies.
Flying less has thus an effect on our climate impact. Who, then, should act? Some say it is purely the academic’s choice to fly or use a lower carbon travel mode. Kreil proposes this is not a fair representation of the situation. Although the individual does take the final decision on whether to fly or not, these decisions are made within a context. This context, as shown below, includes much more than just the individual academic. It includes the research group, the department, the university, and, even broader, media, public or academia in general. The conference organizer could also be of influence, as they could decide to hold the conference in a hybrid or fully virtual format, reducing the number of participants needed on site and improving the conference in many other ways. Additionally, some scientists are calling for funds to put a limit on academic flying in their funding call. Thus, many actors could and already are taking action. The most obvious parties to act, however, are the individual academics (who are making the choice) and their institutions (research groups, department and universities, who can impact the choice of multiple people at once) as they can have the most direct effect.
Image 1: Directions of influence between various actors regarding the reduction of
greenhouse gas emissions associated with business air travel in academia. Contributions I-IV of this
dissertation are located in this framework using colored circles. From: A. Kreil (2021).
In chapter 4 of her dissertation, Kreil gives 79 (!) policy options to stimulate low carbon travel. As part of her research, Kreil mapped which of these options are already put in place at which institutions.
Image 2: What policy is put in place where? An overview by A. Kreil (2022).
These options range from low-coercive policy measures (e.g. behaviour recommendations such as recommended use of light luggage if flying) to more coercive options (e.g. compliance enforcement such as a limited carbon budget for travel purposes). Low-coercive policy measures are more commonly implemented than more coercive options. Commitment (from management) was the most common measure. Although this might not have a direct impact on increasing low carbon travel, employees of academic institutions where management did not express commitment to low carbon travel, experienced difficulties in their shifts in mode of travel. Additionally, support could help to overcome challenges in low carbon travel, such as lacking resources for example for CO2 compensation. Resources are also lacking for compliance enforcement, which makes it difficult to implement more coercive policy measures.
Apart from a lack of resources, another reason to stay away from more coercive policy measures to reduce air travel in academia, is a concern of rioting researchers. The assumption exists that academics would protest against coercive aviation reduction policies, as it would limit their academic movement freedom for example to attend conferences, conduct fieldwork or visit project partners. Kreil discovered, however, this is not entirely the case. Earlier research showed that the perceived fairness and effectiveness of the policies and whether it targets low-cost behaviours might be more important. No need to worry about rioting researchers as long as the processes leading to the new travel norms are open, transparent and inclusive.
Additionally, Kreil conducted a survey amongst ETH Zürich researchers, which showed the most pressing issues with reducing air travel. Although all kinds of researchers (professors, senior scientists, postdocs and PhDs) all largely supported reducing air travel, they were concerned with the impact this would have on building personal relationships and networks with people not from their own institute and therefore, reducing the chances to have a successful future career. In a different blog post, Kreil therefore gives tips on how to build a network while travelling in a low carbon way. Her main tip? Build a strong virtual presence! That way, people know who you are and what you can be contacted for. It makes it easier for people to get in touch with you and could help you get in touch with other people. Even something simple as adding emojis behind your twitter handle, could improve your online presence by signalling your topics of interest. Another advantage of a good online presence? You cannot be stopped by pandemic-related lockdowns.
Start acting now
Most importantly, we should start acting now. Universities and other academic institutes could do so by implementing fair and effective policy measures. Academics could focus more on online presence. Together, we can shift academia to low carbon travel.