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Flying less

Flying less / Dziggyfoto

When Angelica Lim joined Simon Fraser University’s school of computing science as an assistant professor of professional practice, she was acutely aware of being a role model for young women entering a male-dominated field—robotics. Consequently, she made a point of traveling frequently to professional and academic conferences to network and talk up her discipline. “I wanted to meet as many people as possible to promote robotics and women in STEM,” she says.

But in recent years, Lim, like a growing number of academics, has become increasingly concerned about the carbon footprint of all that travel. After all, a single return flight overseas produces enough emissions to effectively negate the savings produced, for example, by going car-free for a year. “I took an online carbon calculator test,” she recounts. “I began wondering if there were any other ways I can still align with both of my values because I still wanted to promote women, but my carbon footprint was huge.”

The solution: tap her online network of colleagues to ask if someone located closer to an academic conference could appear in her place. She’s also doing much more with posting videos about her work on YouTube, and points out that some of them reach many more people than she’d ever connect with at a conference.

While the academic ‘flying less’ movement began a few years ago, the more recent decision of young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg to take a boat across the Atlantic to press her case at the United Nation has shone a new spotlight on the impact of air travel.

According to a University of Alberta study, airplane emissions account for 2.5 percent of global carbon releases, and are projected to grow rapidly in the next 15 years. But the 15% of the world’s population clustered in wealthy nations generates half of all air travel. 

The challenge of flying less takes on an added dimension for academics whose professional colleagues are distributed around the world, and who also depend on the knowledge exchange that occurs during academic conferences.

Debate over how to reduce academe’s footprint has produced an outpouring of petitions, letters, web resources, institutional tracking policies, arguments over various approaches and even published research. Much of the latest work has been gathered in an open Google-drive resource document edited by University of Ottawa political scientist Ryan Katz-Rosene and a team of contributors. 

The amount of an institution’s flight-related emissions is substantial. A July, 2018, study prepared by the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions estimated that the University of British Columbia’s air travel produces 26,000 to 32,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, which is equivalent to about two-thirds of all the university’s emissions, including those related to heating and air conditioning.

In a July, 2019, paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production, a team led by UBC geographer Seth Wynes took direct aim at the most contentious aspect of the fly-less movement, which is that academics who avoid international gatherings may harm their own scholarship. The study evaluated the published work and travel of 705 UBC professors, and found no correlation between citation frequency and attendance at such events. As the authors observed, pointedly, “This preliminary evidence suggests that there may be opportunities, especially for academics who study topics related to climate and sustainability, to reduce their emissions from air travel while maintaining productive careers.”

The activists pushing universities and conference organizers to reduce their travel emissions want institutions to take a systematic approach grounded in policies and data, but also pragmatism. McGill University’s 2019 sustainable travel guidelines, for example, urge academics to look for solutions such as reducing the number of people who participate in a given conference, combining trips, and the use of public transit, intercity rail or active transportation (walking, cycling, etc.) during overseas events.

Sebastien Caquard, a Concordia University planner who directs the masters in environmental assessment program in the department of geography, planning and environment, helped write the institution’s June 2019 guidelines. They call for annual reporting and disclosure on flying-related activities, and encourage academics to consider video-conferences, public transit or train travel, and extended research trips instead of short-haul conferences.

“Of course, it is sometimes better to talk to people face to face than through Skype or Zoom,” he says. “I’m not denying that. But at some point you have to make decisions like, is it really worth the travel? Our policy is not to simply stop flying and obviously we won’t do that. But evaluate if flying is more like a luxury than a real intellectual necessity providing value?” Caquard is hoping the increased scrutiny reduces trips that are regarded more as perks than professional opportunities.

Some academics want to see other approaches for reducing travel-related emissions. Marcia McKenzie, a University of Saskatchewan professor of education and director of the Sustainability and Education Policy Network, says her team sought to convince the national research granting bodies to allow carbon offsets as line items in grant proposals that involve travel. Those offsets could be directed to organizations engaged in carbon absorption activities, like tree planting. While officials with the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council initially seemed interested, McKenzie says the agency eventually decided against this step.

McKenzie points out that the three federal research councils themselves generate a lot of air travel, routinely flying in reviewers to assess applications during the jury processes. Similarly, the University of Saskatchewan, like most other academic institutions, allows departments to cover the travel costs of external examiners asked to sit on PhD dissertation defense committees and other evaluation bodies. But McKenzie points out that it’s become “completely acceptable” for these sessions to be conducted electronically. “That’s one place you can reduce travel,” she says.

As the debate has evolved in the past few years, other ideas and linkages have surfaced. Besides better tracking, the Pacific Institute study by Wynes and UBC geographer Simon Donner, encourages university administrators to recognize the beneficial link between travel and information and communications infrastructure. Many institutions still lack sophisticated tele-and video-conferencing infrastructure. An investment in state-of-the-art equipment, Wynes and Donner conclude, provides a “behavioural incentive” to avoid unnecessary travel.

At the University of Alberta, the Kule Institute for Advanced Study has also developed a tool kit for organizing more engaging e-conferences, which it has applied in a series of such events each year since 2013. Entitled “Moving Ideas Without Moving People,” the March 2018 document offers a range of suggestions, from how to present from one’s own computer to techniques for maximizing human interaction, such as group video-conferences that dispel the sense of isolation that can accompany webinars and Zoom meetings.

The authors point out that such sessions bring benefits besides reduced emissions: by organizing e-conferences instead of physical ones, there’s a greater likelihood of involving diverse participants from developing regions where universities may not have the resources to send faculty to foreign conferences.

“The only way the conference culture will change is by leadership among conference organizers,” Lim adds. “I still want to attend conferences, but also want the conference leadership to think of ways to make the conference more accessible for those who can’t go, or don’t want to fly.”


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