‘Use carrot, not stick’ to get academics to go green

Universities support gentle touch on nudging researchers to make climate-friendly decisions

November 24, 2021
Dangling carrot
Source: iStock

Despite widespread agreement that higher education must drastically cut its carbon emissions, university officials responsible for sustainability are reluctant to impose limits on academics’ behaviour.

Instead, speakers at Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event favoured gentler approaches to changing scholars’ mindset, including “educating” them on the climate impacts of their travel decisions and providing “high-quality” vegetarian options in campus cafeterias.

“I don’t think we’re at a position where we would ban travel or put restrictions on [it] but there is something in educating people…and trusting them to make the right decisions,” said Jaime Toney, director of the Centre for Sustainable Solutions at the University of Glasgow.

She urged a more nuanced, case-by-case approach to work trips, suggesting that more established scholars may benefit less from the networking opportunities of attending an event in person than their younger colleagues.

“This is not about…stopping travel,” agreed Joanna Chamberlain, head of sustainability at the University of Cambridge, who underscored that mobility remains a “very important form of academic endeavour”.

She, too, backed the approach of providing information and policy guidelines to “help people” in making “the right decision for them and for the environment”.

Ms Chamberlain also warned against yielding to the temptation to restrict certain behaviours.

“You have to be very aware of the unintended consequences of rules,” she said. For instance, she said that early career researchers who have childcare duties may be unable to make a conference if they need to take a long train journey versus a quick flight.

The speakers also favoured a carrot rather than stick approach in other areas, such as changing the culture around food. They supported leaving meat options on the menu on campus cafeterias, with exceptions such as meatless Mondays.

Both panellists said that universities were increasingly recognising that they need to serve up tastier meat-free dishes to entice academics to eat less carbon-intensive food – an exercise that could well involve literal carrots.

“We used to have a bit of a joke if you were vegetarian [the] option was always a sandwich with something in it and you didn’t know what it was until you took a bite,” said Professor Toney, adding that the emphasis has shifted to providing “high-quality” green alternatives.

But she also noted that where meat is concerned, “it’s not a clear black-and-white issue”, when you take into account local context.

“In Scotland one of the things people have been saying around food is [to eat] local deer because they’re having issues with them…destroying biodiversity,” she said.


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