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Develop meaningful travel policies for academics before lifting any currently imposed restrictions on international travel

  • 22 April 2020
  • By Stephen Allen and Matt Watson

This blog was kindly contributed by Dr Stephen Allen and Dr Matt Watson, two academics at the University of Sheffield who recently held a conference on the flying habits of academics.

To mark World Earth Day, the HEPI blog is exploring some ways universities can reduce their carbon footprint.

To respond to the climate emergency an increasing number of universities around the world have declared an ambition to radically reduce their contributions to carbon emissions. For example, the University of Sheffield announced in September 2019 that, among other measures, it is planning to become carbon neutral. This is a very much welcomed intention but how could universities achieve carbon neutrality at the speed which it is needed to avoid global temperatures rising more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels?

In our research, we are attempting to understand what academic travel would involve at a carbon neutral university. A small number of studies on universities’ total emissions suggest business flights (excluding student travel to and from universities) typically accounts for 10-20 per cent of a research-intensive university’s total (scope 1, 2 & 3) emissions. The carbon intensity of air travel means reducing it is one of the fastest available ways to reduce universities’ emissions. Some examples of universities that have attempted to calculate their carbon emissions from flying include the University of Edinburgh, UK at 11 per cent and Ghent University, Belgium at 15 per cent.

Flying is not evenly distributed across and within societies: around 50 per cent of the UK population do not fly at all in a year. In 2017, the CEO of Boeing estimated 80 per cent of the world’s population had never got on a plane. As a profession academia is relatively flight intensive and individual flight emissions vary enormously between academics. One study of the University of British Columbia (UBC) found 50 per cent of emissions were from flights of 8 to 11 per cent of academic staff, with senior professors more likely to be in that category than junior academics. Peter Kalmus, a climate science academic, worked out his work-flights as a proportion of his overall carbon emissions and it was more than 70 per cent.

Due to the current global pandemic Covid-19, UK universities have banned all international travel. The pandemic is an overwhelming crisis globally, with terrible consequences particularly for the world’s poorest. However, the societal responses to the crisis are also an experiment in all sorts of changes, including the radical reduction of air travel. Collective responses to slow the spread of Covid-19 can offer us a crucial moment to be able to develop pathways to carbon neutrality as we emerge from our current pandemic crisis and can again confront the climate crisis.

When we gathered academics from around the world together for a symposium on academic flying in November 2019, which we coordinated without anyone getting on an aeroplane, we considered how deeply woven into ‘doing academia’ flying has become in recent decades and heard from speakers based in three different continents about:

  • How flying is central to institutions enrolling more international students; and
  • How academics are understood to get the message out about their research and collaborate.

While universities are making plans to reduce carbon from travel, they are also promoting agendas for internationalising themselves. Internationalisation strategies promote the movement of researchers and students around the world in support of developing ‘global’ education, research and reputation. It appears that these are crucial paradoxes to recognise and address.

As many of us are impelled to be working remotely for the weeks to come, we each have the necessity and opportunity to explore what the ‘virtual’ alternatives are to our potential work-related compulsions for proximity. This is of course overshadowed by the harrowing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, but personally we have already learned that trying to move teaching and research online is stressful in its own right, as it involves rethinking ways of doing academic work, for which we do not have ready answers.

Information communication technologies will not provide the answers, they are not direct replacements for the benefits of being physically present with others, but they open up possibilities for different ways of being present and interacting. We are likely going to be surprised along the way, for example, by how some of our students have suggested during the move to remote teaching due to the Covid-19 outbreak that they find online tutorials more ‘intimate’ and ‘engaging’. Additionally, the recent HEPI survey of students suggests that around half of students expressed that there are content with the remote teaching they are now receiving. What might this mean for ideas of connectedness?

Going carbon neutral will not involve business-as-usual for universities. Significantly reducing aeroplane travel is an area in which this realisation is particularly stark. Indeed, information communication technologies supported by massive data centres and associated networks are also variously implicated in carbon emissions and, while representing a tiny fraction of the emissions of flying to meet, there is yet little guidance about which platforms are lower carbon.

Our recommendations are:

  • Universities should develop meaningful travel strategies. This would entail a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from travel involved in our work, agreed processes for reflecting and deliberating on whether, where and how to travel; consideration of institutional (for example, financial processes, HR) and sectoral changes (for example, challenging research funders to make applicants account for and justify carbon emissions entailed in project design) and; monitoring emissions over time. Various universities have developed such strategies, informed by work such as The Tyndall Centre’s model.
  • Given that the climate emergency is urgent, universities have an obligation to look for opportunities to put meaningful travel strategies in place prior to lifting any currently imposed restrictions on international travel. This is a unique moment and opportunity for concerted action on addressing academia’s travel carbon footprint.
  • New models of internationalisation are developed in connection with meaningful travel strategies so that we do not continue to lock-in imperatives to fly by staff and students. For instance, drawing upon the agenda to ‘decolonise’ universities, and science, could be a highly productive space for challenging us to reimagine possibilities.

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