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Air travel in academia

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Air travel is an essential part of the professional lives of many academics, and a major source of pollution from that sector. In the context of the climate crisis, there have been appeals to reduce air travel by replacing it with other modes of transportation, replacing it with videoconferencing, or renouncing inessential trips.

Role of air travel in academia

The individual emissions of academic researchers are high compared to other professionals, "primarily as a result of emissions from flying to conferences, project meetings, and fieldwork".[1][2] Beyond their usefulness for doing research, these travels are motivated by career incentives, as decisions to award faculty positions or research funding depend in part on the applicants' activity as speakers at international conferences. Touristic opportunities also contribute to motivating these travels, which are considered as a perk of the profession.[1]

While conferences and meetings are important for exchanging ideas and nurturing professional relationships, this can also be done using alternative modes of communication such as videoconferencing and social media. It has been argued that the benefits of face-to-face meetings might be outweighed by the benefits of the alternatives, such as reaching wider communities.[1]

Attitude of academic institutions

A 2014 study of three New Zealand universities found that rhetoric on sustainability coexisted with assumptions about the necessity to travel, and policies that encouraged travel.[3] A similar phenomenon was observed in Australia, where "a normative system of ‘academic aeromobility’ has developed".[4] Australian universities could be divided into three groups, depending on whether they recognize the sustainability issues with air travel, and if yes whether they seek to substitute air travel with videoconferencing.[5]

Attitude of academics

A 2017 survey found that conservationists' environmental footprint was only slightly lower than economics' and medics', and that exposure to environmental information had little impact on researchers' behaviour.[6]

Flying often has been argued to be incompatible with anthropologists' research ethics.[7] In the case of archaeology, flying often while knowing about the problem of climate change has been denounced as a case of cognitive dissonance.[8]

Climate hypocrisy

How much scientists fly affects their credibility when they communicate to the public on climate change.[2] In particular, a 2016 survey has found that climate researchers' carbon footprints have a large effect on their credibility, and on participants' intentions to reduce their personal energy consumption.[9][10]

The idea of researchers' climate hypocrisy regularly appears in media coverage of climate change. Hypocrisy discourses can be invoked both for supporting and for resisting climate-friendly policies.[11][12]

Emissions and their reduction

Estimated emissions

The CO2 emissions for a single conference trip were estimated to 7% of an average individual’s total CO2 emissions. The total emissions of scientists travelling to conferences for presenting papers were estimated to 0.228% of international aviation emissions in 2008.[13]

In a case study of a PhD project, mobility represented 75% of the carbon footprint, which could have been reduced by 44% using videoconferencing. The total emissions were 21.5t CO2-eq or 2.69t CO2-eq per peer-reviewed paper.[14] (In comparison, the carbon footprint of computers, printers, etc is estimated to only 5.44kg CO2-eq per paper.[15])

Estimated possible reductions

Scientific organizations could reduce the carbon footprints of their meetings by up to 73% by alternating large national or international meetings with regional ones every other year, according to a 2011 study.[9] Optimizing the locations of the conferences of the International Biogeography Society could reduce emissions by about 20%, according to a 2014 study.[16]

Institutional policies

Taxes on air travel

The University of California, Los Angeles has been taxing its departments $9 per domestic flight and $25 per international flight.[17]


Voluntary reduction in air travel

For researchers, reducing air travel is "the biggest opportunity for reducing personal climate impacts".[9] Some academics therefore reduce or stop flying in order to reduce their individual carbon footprints and/or to lead by example.

Meteorologist Eric Holthaus stopped flying in 2014, and claimed that slow travel made "his world shrink and become richer".[18]

External links


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 "Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century". Tyndall Working Paper 161. Retrieved 2020-02-09.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Fois, Mauro; Cuena-Lombraña, Alba; Fristoe, Trevor; Fenu, Giuseppe; Bacchetta, Gianluigi (2016). "Reconsidering alternative transportation systems to reach academic conferences and to convey an example to reduce greenhouse gas emissions". History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences (Springer Science and Business Media LLC) 38 (4). doi:10.1007/s40656-016-0126-x. ISSN 0391-9714.
  3. Hopkins, Debbie; Higham, James; Tapp, Sarah; Duncan, Tara (2015-09-12). "Academic mobility in the Anthropocene era: a comparative study of university policy at three New Zealand institutions". Journal of Sustainable Tourism (Informa UK Limited) 24 (3): 376–397. doi:10.1080/09669582.2015.1071383. ISSN 0966-9582.
  4. Glover, Andrew; Strengers, Yolande; Lewis, Tania (2017). "The unsustainability of academic aeromobility in Australian universities". Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy (Informa UK Limited) 13 (1): 1–12. doi:10.1080/15487733.2017.1388620. ISSN 1548-7733.
  5. Glover, Andrew; Strengers, Yolande; Lewis, Tania (2018-05-08). "Sustainability and academic air travel in Australian universities". International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education (Emerald) 19 (4): 756–772. doi:10.1108/ijshe-08-2017-0129. ISSN 1467-6370.
  6. Balmford, Andrew; Cole, Lizzy; Sandbrook, Chris; Fisher, Brendan (2017). "The environmental footprints of conservationists, economists and medics compared". Biological Conservation (Elsevier BV) 214: 260–269. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2017.07.035. ISSN 0006-3207.
  7. "In an era of climate change, our ethics code is clear: We need to end the AAA annual meeting". anthro{dendum}. 2018-01-13. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  8. Reynolds, Natasha (2018-11-02). "Decarbonising archaeology". Nature Research Ecology & Evolution Community. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Rosen, Julia (2017). "Sustainability: A greener culture". Nature (Springer Science and Business Media LLC) 546 (7659): 565–567. doi:10.1038/nj7659-565a. ISSN 0028-0836.
  10. Attari, Shahzeen Z.; Krantz, David H.; Weber, Elke U. (2016-06-16). "Statements about climate researchers’ carbon footprints affect their credibility and the impact of their advice". Climatic Change (Springer Science and Business Media LLC) 138 (1-2): 325–338. doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1713-2. ISSN 0165-0009.
  11. Gunster, Shane; Fleet, Darren; Paterson, Matthew; Saurette, Paul (2018-06-11). "Climate Hypocrisies: A Comparative Study of News Discourse". Environmental Communication (Informa UK Limited) 12 (6): 773–793. doi:10.1080/17524032.2018.1474784. ISSN 1752-4032.
  12. Gunster, Shane; Fleet, Darren; Paterson, Matthew; Saurette, Paul (2018-11-06). "“Why Don't You Act Like You Believe It?”: Competing Visions of Climate Hypocrisy". Frontiers in Communication (Frontiers Media SA) 3. doi:10.3389/fcomm.2018.00049. ISSN 2297-900X.
  13. Spinellis, Diomidis; Louridas, Panos (2013-06-26). Bohrer, Gil. ed. "The Carbon Footprint of Conference Papers". PLoS ONE (Public Library of Science (PLoS)) 8 (6): e66508. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0066508. ISSN 1932-6203.
  14. Achten, Wouter M.J.; Almeida, Joana; Muys, Bart (2013). "Carbon footprint of science: More than flying". Ecological Indicators (Elsevier BV) 34: 352–355. doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2013.05.025. ISSN 1470-160X.
  15. Song, Guobao; Che, Li; Zhang, Shushen (2016). "Carbon footprint of a scientific publication: A case study at Dalian University of Technology, China". Ecological Indicators (Elsevier BV) 60: 275–282. doi:10.1016/j.ecolind.2015.06.044. ISSN 1470-160X.
  16. Stroud, James T.; Feeley, Kenneth J. (2014-12-02). "Responsible academia: optimizing conference locations to minimize greenhouse gas emissions". Ecography (Wiley) 38 (4): 402–404. doi:10.1111/ecog.01366. ISSN 0906-7590.
  17. Hasan, Mejs. "New University Rules Encourage Scientists to Avoid Air Travel". Wired. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  18. Holthaus, Eric (2014-10-02). "I Went a Year Without Flying to Help Fight Climate Change". Slate Magazine. Retrieved 2020-02-09.