Researchers are keen to travel abroad but air transport makes a significant contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. (Shutterstock)

Universities need to rein in academic air travel and greenhouse gases

A recent article on air travel in the journal Science has caused some turbulence in the academic community.

In it, Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, calculated that she had travelled nearly 200,000 kilometres in 2017, mostly to attend conferences. That’s the equivalent of 10 Montréal to Beijing round trips, or five times around the world!

That tally prompted her to question the environmental impact of her professional activities, and reduce the distance she travelled by plane by 75 per cent the following year.

Although her case is extreme, Cobb is no exception. University researchers are often required to travel to conferences, meetings, committees or to conduct research. A survey we conducted among Université de Montréal professors determined that they travel an average of 33,000 kilometres per year in the course of their professional activities, mostly by air.

Postdoctoral fellows and graduate students also travel as part of their research and to present their results, at a rate of 13,600 kilometres and 5,900 kilometres per person, respectively.

A significant environmental impact

All these kilometres travelled for science leave their mark. Transport contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions, which are largely responsible for the current climate change. Air transport alone contributes nearly two per cent of global annual emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and emits many other pollutants that are harmful to both health and the environment. It is also one of the fastest growing sources of CO2 in the world.

Aviation emissions, for example, increased by more than 75 per cent between 1990 and 2012, and they continue to grow at a frenetic pace.

Cardiologists at a conference in Mannheim, Germany. All these kilometres travelled for science contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. (Shutterstock)

At the individual level, the average Canadian emits, through their consumption of goods and services, about 13 tonnes of CO2 per year. However, emissions resulting from the air transport of Université de Montréal professors alone averages 11 tonnes of CO2 annually per person. To stay within the Canadian average, researchers would therefore have to reduce emissions in other areas of their lives, including food, energy consumption and daily transportation, to virtually zero — a mission that is almost impossible.

If we compile the CO2 generated by all research-related travel for the Université de Montréal — that’s researchers, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students — they are responsible for nearly 40 per cent of all the university’s CO2 emissions. That’s a calculation that takes into account energy consumption on campus, daily staff and student travel and the production of food sold on campus, among other emissions.

However, the case of Université de Montréal is not unique. Other universities, such as McGill University or the University of British Columbia, have done this exercise. The results vary, but one constant remains: research-related travel is frequent and responsible for the emission of a significant amount of CO2.

Why travel so much?

Researchers have several reasons for travelling, but the main reason is related to the presentation of research results: 67 per cent of the trips made by Université de Montréal respondents were to conferences or seminars, while 18 per cent were for research purposes, the rest were for meetings, committees or other gatherings.

These activities are valued by universities and granting agencies, which promote the international reach of research. However, this internationalization is not limited to researchers. Universities are increasingly seeking to recruit foreign students and promote international exchanges among their own students, which also has a significant environmental impact.

A scientific conference in Warsaw, Poland. Travel is valued by universities and granting agencies that promote the international reach of research. (Shutterstock)

Cost-effective travel

The question remains: are all these trips scientifically profitable? The debate was launched earlier this year by researchers at the University of British Columbia, who assessed the scientific productivity of researchers based on the frequency of their air travel. The reasoning is simple: the more researchers travel, the more they expand their networks. The more they disseminate their research, the more successful they are.

The results are surprising: the number of trips made would have very little influence on the productivity of researchers. One hypothesis that could explain these results is that researchers who travel a lot would have less time to do their research and write articles for scientific journals.

Another finding: 10 per cent of the reported trips would have been easy to avoid, since they were trips of less than 24 hours that could have been replaced by videoconference or whose distance did not justify air travel.

Are there any solutions?

Some researchers, such as Kim Cobb, have opted for a clear commitment to reduce their travel. Several, in particular, climate experts, are signatories to the No Fly Climate Sci initiative, where they commit to travel less by air, among other things by limiting their attendance at international conferences.

Some institutions have also taken the lead. For example, the University of California at Los Angeles requires a contribution from all researchers travelling by air to offset CO2 emissions from their travel. Others, such as the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in England, have established clear rules to promote remote encounters, use another mode of transport where possible and combine different professional activities within the same trip.

At the Université de Montréal, for the time being, there is no policy in place to reduce the environmental impacts of academic travel. Although several researchers interviewed wanted to reduced their emissions, they raised to issues: the difficulty of paying for carbon offsets from their research funds, due to the rules of the granting agencies, which often do not allow this type of expense; and the lack of accessibility to videoconferencing systems.

Finally, it must be asked whether all researchers have the same responsibility or ability to reduce their emissions, which raises questions of equity.

For example, researchers from New Zealand or Australia have difficulty finding alternative means of transportation to international destinations. This is also the case for researchers from developing countries who benefit from presenting their results at European or North American conferences. Travel is also essential for researchers at the beginning of their careers who need to expand their network of contacts to secure permanent employment or for those whose research requires a presence in the field.

In short, the environmental impacts of academic travel are known. So are the solutions. It is now up to institutions to determine how to adapt their realities to these impacts and to researchers to adopt measures put in place.

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This article was originally published in French