Planes, trains and carbon

Academics should take the lead when it comes to cutting aviation-related carbon, say Jens Rolff and David Sedley

September 3, 2009

Times Higher Education's annual green league table for universities ("How green is my tally?", 18 June 2009), for all its merits, leaves out one vital component: the carbon footprint of staff and student travel. Just 4 per cent of UK air passengers fly more than five times a year, and these include financiers, those with a second home abroad, and yes, a substantial number of academics.

The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research estimates that if the UK were to meet its carbon reduction targets without regulating flying, aviation would end up accounting for up to 70 per cent of total carbon emissions. Flying is a major cause of global warming. Not only is it incredibly carbon-intensive, but much of the carbon generated is emitted into the upper atmosphere, where its greenhouse effect is considerably greater than equivalent emissions at ground level. A single passenger making the return flight between London and San Francisco is personally responsible for creating the climate impact equivalent of about 6 tonnes of CO2 emissions, according to

A recent poll by undergraduates at the University of Sheffield revealed that the CO2 emissions from aviation average at least 2.1 tonnes per academic per year. And for many academics the figure is vastly in excess of this. Ironically, at a time when the technology for long-distance electronic communication has become both sophisticated and affordable, the launch of budget airlines has led to an ever-increasing number of flights. Academics, running on tight budgets and often pressured by their universities or funding bodies to travel by the cheapest available means, have made extensive use of these flights.

Academic scientists have had a pivotal role in convincing governments to take action on climate change. But academics have yet to take matching action of their own, despite the fact that taking the lead on carbon reduction would make their case far more authoritative. Some university carbon management plans actually highlight a potential credibility problem here that could undermine acquisition of future funding for climate change research.

We fully acknowledge that many academics use public transport or cycle to work. But every flight saved makes an incomparably greater contribution to the reduction of one's personal carbon footprint. We in the UK have little chance of persuading developing countries like India to reduce their soaring emissions when our own per capita carbon footprint is greater than theirs. This is one reason why personal reduction of emissions has a vital role to play in the race to save the world from runaway climate change. If academics do not take the lead, who will?

We are fully aware that international collaboration is an important part of research, and a significant contributor to career advancement as well. It is therefore particularly hard on younger scholars to expect unilateral action from them. But collaboratively we really could make a difference. A radical solution would be to reduce the number of meetings, or the number of conferences any one researcher expects to attend (which might also have side-benefits for time management). Virtual conferences offer a further cost-, time- and carbon-efficient way of replacing normal conferences. But another very easily achievable way forward, and one that any individual academic can adopt, is to replace flying within Europe so far as possible with train travel, which is usually fast, efficient and affordable.

If this vitally urgent issue were, as it surely should be, among their top priorities, most academics could seek ways to reduce their flying significantly, by combining multiple engagements on a single trip wherever possible, by taking the train and by thinking twice about accepting invitations to non-essential events, even, dare we say it, when these are held in seductively exotic locations.

Ideally the universities and the research councils should factor travel into their carbon budget management. We cannot afford to wait for this. We should all be acting now.

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