Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel

Dismayed by their climatic impact, 12 scholars seek to limit carbon emissions at their own institutions as well as give suggestions for others.

April 18, 2019
 
 
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If you had to guess, how many flights would you say you have taken in your career?

We, the authors of this piece, estimate that we have collectively logged more than 1,000 flight segments for professional reasons over the course of our careers. This matters because air travel is one of the most significant ways that academics contribute to anthropogenic climate change. Dismayed by our own climatic impact, we are seeking to reorganize our institutions in order to limit carbon emissions.

Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimate that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint, “equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines.”

The average American is responsible for 16.5 metric tons of carbon emissions per year. That is more than three times the global per capita average, which is around five metric tons.

Now, let’s say you take a round-trip economy flight from Boston to San Francisco, with one layover along the way. That trip releases 0.78 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere -- and that’s just you. Multiply that number by the hundreds or thousands attending the conference, and you can see why professional societies have a significant role to play in curbing emissions through diminishing faculty travel.

Long-distance travel for professional meetings is not only contributing to climate change; it is also vulnerable to extreme weather, as those who tried to attend the Modern Language Association Convention in New York City during the “bomb cyclone” in January 2018 can attest. In other words, the question of academic travel is not merely about guilt over our carbon footprints: climate change now constitutes the context for all our professional activity. We can all expect academic travel to become more challenging as extreme weather events become more severe and more common.

The moral: our institutional practices should shift to reduce academic air travel. To be clear, we aren’t calling for a moratorium on flying, and specific personal and professional situations will inevitably require some of us to travel more than others. But even modest changes could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our professional practice. To that end, we’re calling on academic associations, societies and other organizations to require less flying.

Of course, it will be hard to forgo occasions for face-to-face meetings. They can be profoundly invigorating, and they have distinct advantages, including opportunities to get to know new places and people. Colleagues often mention side conversations over coffee as the moments when the really important connections and insights take shape. But what if new practices enabled those conversations to occur more frequently and productively? In other words, what if decarbonizing our professional practice also made it better -- more inclusive, inventive or useful?

Reduced-carbon conferencing has some distinct advantages. Virtual alternatives are less expensive and therefore more accessible to those without research funding, including contingent faculty, those pursuing alt-ac careers and graduate students. Rather than focusing on the sacrifices, we could put our minds to experimenting with fresh and exciting conference formats and imagining ways to increase opportunities for meaningful and sustainable sociability.

Doing so may also help us rethink how to make the travel we do undertake more effective and efficient, devoting as much time and energy as possible to those modes of experience and exchange that cannot be achieved in another fashion. Thus, our goal in advancing these proposals is not simply to reduce faculty travel but also to amplify the value of our trips.

At the same time, since climate change demands responses on a scale larger than the individual, we need to imagine experiments that reshape entire institutions and disciplines. Shocked by the carbon footprint of our small group alone, we have collectively brainstormed the following suggestions for reducing professional air travel. Some of these ideas will, we hope, also improve professional exchange and collaboration.

You may already be pursuing one or more of the following recommendations, but we encourage you to be even more intentional and creative in your efforts. We offer these ideas as a spur to conversation and further experimentation about how to lower the environmental impact of academic work.

Experiment with virtual platforms. Most of these platforms -- like Skype, Zoom, Webex, Connect and GoToMeeting -- can accommodate the participation of up to 50 people and, with special arrangements, even as many as 250 people, including breakout groups. It may be difficult simply to convert a typical conference panel format to virtual forms, but remote technologies could enable new kinds of panel structures. The Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference pioneered by Ken Hiltner is a fully online conference that has now run several times. The carbon cost of digital technology is worth noting, but it is negligible compared to air travel.

Organize regional hub conferences. Instead of a single in-person national or international meeting, a professional association or other organization could convene at multiple regional sites, linked digitally for major events like keynotes and award ceremonies.

Hold fewer conferences. Convening conferences every other year instead of annually automatically halves the carbon output. A large organization could also have a centralized conference in alternating years and a regional hub conference in the in-between years. That could have the added benefit of strengthening regional professional relationships if their meetings are staggered in alternate years.

Hold conferences in airport hubs. Convening in places like Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta and Houston can reduce the number of necessary flights. Not only do takeoff and landing burn the most fuel, but complicated flight itineraries often result in thousands of extra miles flown and increase the chances of unforeseen delays.

Limit overseas conferences. Scholarly organizations that are national or North American in their focus should reconsider the practice of holding conferences abroad -- unless the topic is explicitly international in scope. Such events are inaccessible as well as carbon intensive. While we recognize the benefits of overseas conferences in fostering international dialogue, digital add-ons to North American conferences, or digitally linked conferences on separate continents, could also build connections with international colleagues.

Experiment with coordinating conference timing. Smaller meetings could be tagged onto larger ones, requiring one trip for two conferences. And more conference organizations could co-sponsor meetings with others.

Invite speakers to give talks remotely. To make sure their visits still provide opportunity for conversation, speakers might have a virtual meeting with colleagues and/or graduate students before or after the conference. Their talks could be broadcast to audiences around the world, if the speaker is willing.

Invite fewer distant speakers and ask for more work from each one. A conventional visit from a scholar entails a talk and a dinner. A smaller number of speakers could be paid more and asked to do more while there. They could convene workshops for graduate students, meet with classes or read book or grant proposals.

Focus on making a single flight serve multiple purposes. Encourage any invited speakers to tag talks onto one another, delivering a paper at the conference and then visiting a campus nearby.

Build carbon offsets into the funding of conferences. That can be done either by raising institutional funds or by adding a small “tax” to registration fees for those willing to contribute to an event offset fund. Carbon offsets are a limited response, as they do not prevent the carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere in the first place; still, they are worth pursuing as a mitigating strategy.

Minimize the carbon impacts of the conference itself. Serve vegetarian food, encourage digital rather than paper programs, minimize swag and work with your venue to serve food and drink in reusable or compostable containers.

Envision new ways to build community online. For example, a group of climate scientists has organized a website for academics who are committed to reducing their individual air travel. The No Fly Climate Sci site is now open to academics of all disciplines, as is a similar blog, Flying Less, with a corresponding petition.

Convene online reading or discussion groups. Participants might read and discuss a shared text, including a work in progress, then meet via virtual platforms such as Zoom. Online reading groups could be linked to regional in-person groups discussing the same texts.

Make best use of the setting. Of course, travel can provide extremely rewarding and indeed irreplaceable opportunities for professional interaction. But a few people listening to a paper read out loud in a windowless conference room does not necessarily make the best use of the opportunities that travel affords. If you are hosting an in-person event, you should always consider how it might be organized around the specific affordances of a given setting or location.

We urge faculty members to work to imagine new ways to collaborate with colleagues on their campuses and come up with other ideas. And we encourage colleges and universities to support and fund innovative conference thinking on the part of their faculty. Many institutions have set ambitious goals for achieving carbon neutrality and should be willing to support experimentation toward this end.

We close by suggesting a set of priorities for any group or organization hosting events. These are not “solutions” but questions for consideration.

  • Calculate the carbon impact of your event. What steps can you take to minimize that impact while achieving your goals?
  • How might decarbonization improve your event -- whether in terms of intellectual exchange, equity and inclusion, or some other factor?
  • What goals for your event could be achieved by means other than an in-person meeting?
  • How can your event make the most of its setting and the physical travel that it involves?

Other ideas? Keep them coming! Now is the time to brainstorm and experiment.

Bio

Caroline Levine, David and Kathleen Ryan Professor of the Humanities and Picket Family Chair, department of English, Cornell University

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, professor of English, University of California, Davis

Benjamin Morgan, associate professor of English, University of Chicago

Jesse Oak Taylor, associate professor of English, University of Washington

Lynn Voskuil, associate professor of English, University of Houston

Daniel Williams, lecturer in discipline, department of English and comparative literature, Columbia University

Deanna Kreisel, associate professor of English, University of British Columbia

Heidi Roop, lead scientist for science communication, Climate Impacts Group, and affiliate assistant professor, department of environmental and occupational health sciences, University of Washington

Stephen Wheeler, professor of landscape architecture and environmental design, University of California, Davis

Arnold J. Bloom, Distinguished Professor, John B. Orr Endowed Professor, department of plant sciences, University of California, Davis

Robert Warren Howarth, David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Cornell University

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson, associate professor of history, University of Chicago

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