Virtual conferences prioritised under Glasgow’s green plan

Researchers at Scottish university urged to avoid travel ‘wherever possible’ under new strategy designed to make institution carbon-free within a decade

March 1, 2021
University of Glasgow
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The University of Glasgow is asking staff to attend virtual conferences instead of in-person events “wherever possible” as part of a new plan to cut carbon emissions from business travel by 7.5 per cent each year.

The Russell Group university will also require researchers to outline how they will reduce face-to-face working with partner organisations in other locations and set aside grant money to allow partners to buy hardware to facilitate these interactions if required, as part of a detailed plan to become a carbon-neutral institution by 2030.

Announcing the measures on 1 March, the university explained business travel accounted for 22 per cent of its annual carbon footprint prior to the pandemic – equivalent to around 13,194 tonnes of carbon dioxide. Most of the travel-related emissions were created by international and domestic flights, it said.

While travel would remain an “important part of the university’s everyday business”, Glasgow would be encouraging staff to avoid travel wherever possible, said Sally Wyke, deputy director of the university’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, who chaired the group that drew up the guidance.

The aim is to reduce that carbon output by 58 per cent – to equivalent to 5,597 tonnes of carbon dioxide – by the end of the decade.

“In a post-pandemic world, our options to use technology like videoconferencing to streamline travel to only the most necessary trips are more extensive than they have ever been,” said Professor Wyke, who said the initiative would involve helping a “minority of staff who make up a majority of our travel emissions reduce their own footprints to ensure that others, like early career researchers, will have the opportunity to make vital trips”.

The new strategy came in response to a series of consultations with staff and students, who pushed for the university to go further and faster in its efforts to tackle the climate emergency, the university said.

It will require the university’s four colleges to implement sustainable travel plans, encourage staff to make their own decisions about reducing their personal carbon footprints and submit annual reports on their progress, which will be made available to the public.

In November, the city of Glasgow will host the United Nation’s Climate Change Conference, an event that had also pushed the university to step up its carbon-reduction efforts, the university explained.

There is little data about the amount of carbon emissions created by academic conferences. UK universities are required to submit data on the flights taken by their staff, but researchers say the incomplete and variable nature of data provided to the Higher Education Statistics Agency makes this information difficult to interpret.

But increasing numbers of academics have vowed to tackle their conference-related carbon footprint following the post-pandemic resumption of travel, stating that their use of long-haul flights to academic events does not square with their green values.

Under Glasgow’s plans, staff will be asked to “avoid travelling wherever possible” and use virtual conferencing “as much as they can instead”, and also choose public transport when travelling, with train and bus travel becoming the default for trips within the UK wherever possible, even if it costs more than travelling by air.

Staff will be asked to maximise the outcomes of unavoidable trips by scheduling additional in-person meetings, wherever possible, around conference meetings.

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