Universities Must Tackle Air Travel Emissions

Universities Must Tackle Air Travel Emissions Who is Danny/Shutterstock.com

Summer is here – for many, a time for holidays and travelling, often by plane. Air travel has risen steeply on a global level. Since 2004 alone, passenger numbers have more than doubled, from two billion to 4.4 billion in 2018, with new record numbers forecast for 2019. Emissions from global air travel are predicted to double or even treble again by 2050 if no action is taken.

Universities play a role in this with a high and rising air travel footprint. Academics are frequent air travellers – to present at international conferences, conduct and review research, network and collaborate. “International recognition” forms an important criterion for academic job descriptions and promotions, and universities increasingly benefit from international student fees and international research funding. Many academics see travelling to far-flung places as the perk of the job – to compensate for long hours and performance pressures.

Some might argue that extensive academic travel is justified by the positive contribution that academic research and teaching make to society. But in a world which needs to reduce emissions down to net-zero by 2050 at the latest to stay within planetary boundaries, the sector will need to engage in a more open debate about its air travel carbon footprint and options to reduce it.

The problem starts with a lack of precise data on the air travel footprint of the higher education sector. In the UK, the first port of call should be data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Currently, UK universities are asked to submit data on flight emissions to HESA, either based on destinations or on spending on flights. This is not obligatory – in the past three years only 43% have done so.

Unfortunately, the data show likely errors which compromise their usefulness. For instance, the database records extremely high figures for a small number of universities which skew the calculation of mean emissions. This may be because calculating carbon emissions from expenditure is not very reliable. The database also does not distinguish between flights taken by academic and non-academic staff, even though their flight behaviour is likely to be different. Clearer reporting standards and data checks are urgently required so we can examine the sector’s flight carbon footprint more precisely.

Universities Must Tackle Air Travel Emissions More thought needs to go into the justifications for frequent academic air travel. Bborriss.67/Shutterstock.com

Estimating the footprint

To create an estimate, let’s instead cautiously assume that the average academic in the UK attends just one international conference or meeting per year by plane, for instance one in the US, with a CO₂ emissions footprint of about five tonnes. Based on one of my earlier studies, this is over ten times as much as the average UK person’s carbon footprint from leisure flights, and nearly 20% more than the average UK person’s total annual carbon footprint from travel and home energy combined.

With 211,980 academic staff in UK higher education in 2017/8, this would add up to a total of nearly 1.1m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – equivalent to the average total annual consumption-based carbon footprint of over 120,000 people in the UK. Since most academics fly multiple times per year, this could easily be an underestimate.

What about global figures? If we scale up the estimated CO₂ emissions from academic staff air travel in the UK per higher education institution (around 6,583 tonnes CO₂ for each of the 161 institutions in 2017) to the at least 28,000 universities globally, it would amount to 184m tonnes of CO₂ globally - nearly 50% of the UK’s total CO₂ emissions in 2017.

Add to this the carbon footprint of international student air travel. In 2017/18, 458,490 international students were enrolled in UK higher education institutions. Of those, nearly 70% came from outside of the EU, especially from China with 23%.

If each student takes just one return flight per year to visit home, this would add up to around 1.8m tonnes of CO₂ emissions per year (assumed averages based on the atmosfair calculator of 0.8 tonnes per return flight for EU, 5.4 tonnes for China, five tonnes for the rest of the world). Both staff and international student numbers in the UK have been rising over the last few years. If this trend continues, the carbon footprint from academic air travel is also likely to increase.

Universities Must Tackle Air Travel Emissions Would a Skype meeting work instead? Or could you travel by train? Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock.com

Reduce flying

Demand reduction will need to play an important role in bringing air travel emissions down to zero by 2050. This is because technological options for decarbonising air travel, such as carbon-neutral electrofuels, are very expensive and extremely challenging to scale up. Meanwhile ,carbon offsetting schemes are often thought to be insufficiently effective as many fail to deliver additional carbon reductions.

But university management and academics can do various things to reduce flying. Environmental assessments of travel and research project plans should become a requirement as part of already existing ethics and risk assessments.

For every suggested flight, it would be important to assess a number of things. Is the journey really necessary, or can a meeting be held online instead? Can fieldwork abroad be conducted by remotely supervised local teams? If the journey is necessary, can it be made by train (which emits about a seventh of the emissions per passenger compared to air travel)?

Every journey booking should be submitted to a carbon calculator to raise awareness and collect better data. Academic job application and promotion criteria would need to be amended such that environmentally conscious academics are not punished for reducing or giving up flying.

The need to reduce air travel also raises very difficult questions in relation to student internationalisation agendas, and global mobility more generally. Online teaching for students abroad would need to expand considerably to minimise travel emissions. Of course, this would have the lamentable effect of removing the beneficial experience of living abroad and immersing oneself in a new culture.

In many ways, structural incentives for air travel have become established within the higher education sector. This means neither university management nor academics will show much appetite for reducing flights. But if it wants to lead by example, the sector – like many others – urgently needs to collaborate globally to agree on reducing its impact from business travel.The Conversation

About The Author

Milena Buchs, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics, and Low-Carbon Transitions, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming

by Paul Hawken and Tom Steyer
9780143130444In the face of widespread fear and apathy, an international coalition of researchers, professionals, and scientists have come together to offer a set of realistic and bold solutions to climate change. One hundred techniques and practices are described here—some are well known; some you may have never heard of. They range from clean energy to educating girls in lower-income countries to land use practices that pull carbon out of the air. The solutions exist, are economically viable, and communities throughout the world are currently enacting them with skill and determination. Available On Amazon

Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy

by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, Jeffrey Rissman
1610919564With the effects of climate change already upon us, the need to cut global greenhouse gas emissions is nothing less than urgent. It’s a daunting challenge, but the technologies and strategies to meet it exist today. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well. Available On Amazon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
1451697392In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism. Available On Amazon

From The Publisher:
Purchases on Amazon go to defray the cost of bringing you InnerSelf.comelf.com, MightyNatural.com, and ClimateImpactNews.com at no cost and without advertisers that track your browsing habits. Even if you click on a link but don't buy these selected products, anything else you buy in that same visit on Amazon pays us a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, so please contribute to the effort. You can also use this link to use to Amazon at any time so you can help support our efforts.

 

enafarzh-CNzh-TWnltlfrdehiiditjakomsfaptruesswsvthtrurvi

LATEST VIDEOS

Emergency Medicine For Our Climate Fever
by Kelly Wanser
As we recklessly warm the planet by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, some industrial emissions also…
What Extinction Rebellion climate activists are demanding from governments
by Democracy Now!
More than 700 climate activists were arrested in 60 cities worldwide in a global effort aimed at urging governments to…
Can Nature Repair The Planet From Climate Change?
by The Economist
A closer look at one of the most familiar responses offered to the climate crisis.
How Climate Change Is Threatening Homes In Mumbai
by South China Morning Post
Lowland cities and islands such as the Indian city of Mumbai may face increasingly frequent floods and storms
This is Not A Drill: 700+ Arrested as Extinction Rebellion Fights Climate Crisis With Direct Action
by Democracy Now!
More than 700 people have been arrested in civil disobedience actions as the group Extinction Rebellion kicked off two…
Europe's Most Iconic Mountain Is A Climate Change Warning
by ABC News
ABC News' James Longman reports from Mont Blanc, where a glacier on the Italian side of the mountain is breaking apart…
Something Drastic Has To Happen - Roger Hallam
by Extinction Rebellion
Roger Hallam talks with Stephen Sackur from BBC HardTalk about the need to ACT NOW.
Three Steps to Cut Your Carbon Footprint 60% Today
by TEDx Talks
Not all carbon is created equal. Writer Jackson Carpenter argues that the power to stop climate change rests on…

LATEST ARTICLES

Extreme Heatwaves Pose Spreading Threat
Extreme Heatwaves Pose Spreading Threat
by Tim Radford
Rising temperatures mean that heatwaves will become hotter, more frequent, last longer and will cover much wider areas.
Design For Flooding: How Cities Can Make Room For Water
Design For Flooding: How Cities Can Make Room For Water
by Elisa Palazzo
Science is clearly showing that the world is shifting towards a more unstable climate. Weather events like the flash…
How Unions Can Play A Leading Role In Tackling The Climate Crisis
How Unions Can Play A Leading Role In Tackling The Climate Crisis
by Matt Perry
How did a billionaire win over coal miners in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to become president? Three words: “Trump…
Rice Growing Produces Tonnes Of Excess Straw – Can We Turn It Into Bioenergy?
Rice Growing Produces Tonnes Of Excess Straw – Can We Turn It Into Bioenergy?
by Mirjam Roeder
For every tonne of rice produced, about a tonne of straw is grown. Given 770m tonnes of rice are produced each year,…
How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
by Mark New
As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and…
How The U.s. Power Grid Is Evolving To Handle Solar And Wind
How The U.s. Power Grid Is Evolving To Handle Solar And Wind
by Nate Berg
As renewable energy sources move mainstream, electricity generation and distribution systems are getting an extreme…
Emergency Medicine For Our Climate Fever
by Kelly Wanser
As we recklessly warm the planet by pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, some industrial emissions also…
Mr. Delay, Mr. Deny And Canada's Precarious Climate Change Future
Mr. Delay, Mr. Deny And Canada's Precarious Climate Change Future
by Mark Winfield
During the recent federal leaders’ debate, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer only distinguished himself on climate…