Time to stop flying in the face of reason

September 7, 2007

Academics must take collective action to cut their air travel, argues Mathew Humphrey

Listening to a piece of classical music doesn't generally involve flying an entire orchestra into my living room. To talk to a friend in Australia, I don't have to cross half the world for a chat in a Sydney bar. Academics, however, still appear to believe that adequate communication must entail, at fairly frequent intervals, sticking ourselves into pressurised tubes and hurtling through the air at 30,000 feet. We arrange international conferences (I am organising one myself at the moment), and career progression positively encourages a globetrotting, conference-going life. But should it? Two of the reasons why the direct action campaign of the recent Heathrow Climate Camp was justified should lead us to reflect on our own activities.

First, atmospheric change is non-reversible, so we can't tell climate campaigners to accept defeat today and rejoin the argument in the future. In 20 years we will be living with the consequences of the polluting activities we undertake now and will continue to live with them for centuries. These include potential "threshold" changes induced by global warming such as the disintegration of the Greenland and/or west Antarctic ice sheets, which together could add about 13 metres to global sea levels.

Second, these effects will amount to a grave injustice perpetrated by the developed world against those who are unfortunate enough to be both ecologically vulnerable to the effects of climate change and who lack the resources to undertake significant adaptive measures. Bangladeshis may rightly look askance at academics flying to the World Social Forum to complain about the environmental depredations of global capitalism.

Although aviation amounts to about only 5-6 per cent of the 2-3 per cent of global emissions that the UK produces, the effect of pollution dumped in the atmosphere at 30,000 feet is estimated to be around three times more conducive to warming than the same pollution generated at sea level. More important, aviation emissions are expected to be the fastest growing contributor to climate change in the immediate future. The UK Government's Aviation White Paper promoted significant growth in the industry, from 200 million passengers in 2003 to 470 million by 2030. Oxford's Environmental Change Institute produced a report in 2006 suggesting that, even with the economic benefits of air travel, the Government should adopt a policy of reducing demand and pricing flying more appropriately. Without such changes, the growth in aviation emissions could exceed the emissions savings expected to be made in other parts of the economy.

As individuals, the way is open for any of us to travel less to reduce our environmental impact. If we are aware that the negative consequences of our actions outweigh the positive, there is a straightforward utilitarian argument that says: don't fly. The difficulty here is a version of the collective action problem: for any individual the contribution to global change is so infinitesimal that there may, in such utilitarian terms, be virtually no prohibition on behaviour. Moreover, most of us are environmental hypocrites. Knowing what we should do is not the same as managing to do it.

It may, therefore, be worth thinking about what we might do collectively. The danger here is unreflective inertia - we just do business in the same way each year. But do we really need the large annual disciplinary conferences in the US and Europe that form a central part of the existing academic calendar? This kind of event offers the greatest risk of finding you have flown between continents to deliver a paper at a venue where the panellists outnumber the audience. How much serious work gets done at these events as opposed to smaller specialist workshops where one may spend several days working with the same colleagues?

If, on the other hand, what really counts at conferences are the expense account flights and meals, some sightseeing and beer with old friends, then we should stop pretending that this kind of activity is any more worthy than two weeks spent on a beach in Greece or Florida.

Furthermore, we have to examine the ways in which web-based technologies make it easier to communicate with each other without physical presence. Facilities such as WebEX, Adobe Connect and Microsoft's Live Meeting allow long-distance conferencing via connected PCs. It may soon seem rather quaint to think that conferencing must involve transporting people around the world.

Technological development allows us to change the ways in which we conduct our business. At one time that meant we could fly to conferences whereas before we could not. It may now mean that we can attend conferences without hanging around in airports, staying in nondescript hotel accommodation and attending tedious conference dinners. That would be progress.

Mathew Humphrey is a reader in political philosophy at Nottingham University.

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