Should we call time on international academic travel?

The progress of science will not be impeded if the number of flights academics take is reduced, argues Jürgen Gerhards

March 3, 2019

Students and lecturers alike are worried about global warming and related climate change. With a clear ecological conscience and convinced that they stand on the right side of history, they cycle to their university campus, buy a vegetarian sandwich on the way and were jointly outraged when Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement. However, their own contribution to climate change is all too often ignored.

The fact is that climate change is driven by the emission of greenhouse gases and not good intentions. Air travel in particular contributes significantly to CO2 emissions, as a recent study by University of Sydney professor of sustainability research Manfred Lenzen and others have shown. 

Furthermore, students and academics are among the most frequent flyers, thus they significantly contribute to climate change.

This is in part a response to the increasingly globalised nature of research in recent decades. The composition of research and doctoral committees has become international in nature, and collaborations are taking place more frequently between institutions from different countries. 

In addition, the expectation that researchers attend international conferences has grown exponentially. The extent to which many of ones’ colleagues are jetting around the globe is often noticeable from the emails one receives from them: signed off with a carefree “Greetings from Beijing, Tokyo or Berlin”. 

However, the damage of international conference tourism by academic frequent flyers is considerable. A return flight from New York to Berlin in order to take part in a doctoral committee is associated with the emission of 3.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide, participating in a conference in Beijing leads to 7.6 tonnes of carbon emissions. The carbon saved from daily cycling to the university cannot compensate for this in any way.

This is not to say that the globalisation of science is a bad thing, and it would be foolish to think that this process can be easily reversed. However, reducing the number of flights that academics make is necessary and doable, and the progress of science is unlikely to suffer from it. 

In this respect, simple appeals will have little effect. Environmental awareness is already very pronounced among academics and an ecological lifestyle has become a central feature of their habitus. What we need is new institutional rules that can be implemented without much effort. I therefore present the following four suggestions:

1. Many advisory boards and academic commissions have too many members. Reducing the number of members on such committees by a third would not only give academics more time that they could meaningfully use for research and teaching, but would also reduce overall travel and thus CO2 emissions. This is especially true for international committees, where the flight distances and thus the harmful environmental impact are particularly high.

2. New technologies used for holding video conferences, lectures, and meetings should not only be developed further, but used more frequently by academic institutions and their members. This is especially relevant for lectures with small audiences, project discussions with international partners, but also for doctoral examinations with international reviewers. In particular, when it comes to very small groups, it is possible to organise a virtual exchange without any problems. Universities could encourage the use of these technologies by reallocating the expenses they would have spent on travelling costs, to the respective institutes as a means of rewarding them for their eco-friendly policies.

3. The environmental damage caused by air travel can be balanced out by compensatory payments. According to calculations by atmosfair.com, a return flight from New York to Berlin is equivalent to a compensation payment of $83. The money is used for activities that contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide emission. Universities should commit themselves to pay the corresponding compensation payment for each booked flight.

4. The publication of the number of flights made by members of a university during the past two years and a comparison between universities would automatically create pressure to reduce the number of flights in future. The example of regular reports on gender ratios has shown that these sorts of measures can be very effective.

These actions have the advantage that they are easily implementable and would at the same time have a relatively strong effect on reducing the emission of carbon dioxide.

This blog was originally published on the LSE Impact Blog.

Jürgen Gerhards is professor of sociology at the Free University of Berlin.

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