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University sector must tackle air travel emissions

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Summer is here – for many, a time for holidays and travelling, often by plane. Air travel has risen steeply on a global level. Since 2004 alone, passenger numbers have more than doubled, from two billion to 4.4 billion in 2018, with new record numbers forecast for 2019. Emissions from global air travel are predicted to double or even treble again by 2050 if no action is taken.

Universities play a role in this with a high and rising air travel footprint. Academics are frequent air travellers – to present at international conferences, conduct and review research, network and collaborate. “International recognition” forms an important criterion for academic job descriptions and promotions, and universities increasingly benefit from international student fees and international research funding. Many academics see travelling to far-flung places as the perk of the job – to compensate for long hours and performance pressures.

Some might argue that extensive academic travel is justified by the positive contribution that academic research and teaching make to society. But in a world which needs to reduce emissions down to net-zero by 2050 at the latest to stay within planetary boundaries, the sector will need to engage in a more open debate about its air travel carbon footprint and options to reduce it.

The problem starts with a lack of precise data on the air travel footprint of the higher education sector. In the UK, the first port of call should be data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Currently, UK universities are asked to submit data on flight emissions to HESA, either based on destinations or on spending on flights. This is not obligatory – in the past three years only 43% have done so.

Unfortunately, the data show likely errors which compromise their usefulness. For instance, the database records extremely high figures for a small number of universities which skew the calculation of mean emissions. This may be because calculating carbon emissions from expenditure is not very reliable. The database also does not distinguish between flights taken by academic and non-academic staff, even though their flight behaviour is likely to be different. Clearer reporting standards and data checks are urgently required so we can examine the sector’s flight carbon footprint more precisely.

Estimating the footprint

To create an estimate, let’s instead cautiously assume that the average academic in the UK attends just one international conference or meeting per year by plane, for instance one in the US, with a CO₂ emissions footprint of about five tonnes. Based on one of my earlier studies, this is over ten times as much as the average UK person’s carbon footprint from leisure flights, and nearly 20% more than the average UK person’s total annual carbon footprint from travel and home energy combined.

With 211,980 academic staff in UK higher education in 2017/8, this would add up to a total of nearly 1.1m tonnes of CO2 emissions per year – equivalent to the average total annual consumption-based carbon footprint of over 120,000 people in the UK. Since most academics fly multiple times per year, this could easily be an underestimate.

What about global figures? If we scale up the estimated CO₂ emissions from academic staff air travel in the UK per higher education institution (around 6,583 tonnes CO₂ for each of the 161 institutions in 2017) to the at least 28,000 universities globally, it would amount to 184m tonnes of CO₂ globally - nearly 50% of the UK’s total CO₂ emissions in 2017.

Add to this the carbon footprint of international student air travel. In 2017/18, 458,490 international students were enrolled in UK higher education institutions. Of those, nearly 70% came from outside of the EU, especially from China with 23%.

If each student takes just one return flight per year to visit home, this would add up to around 1.8m tonnes of CO₂ emissions per year (assumed averages based on the atmosfair calculator of 0.8 tonnes per return flight for EU, 5.4 tonnes for China, five tonnes for the rest of the world). Both staff and international student numbers in the UK have been rising over the last few years. If this trend continues, the carbon footprint from academic air travel is also likely to increase.

Reduce flying

Demand reduction will need to play an important role in bringing air travel emissions down to zero by 2050. This is because technological options for decarbonising air travel, such as carbon-neutral electrofuels, are very expensive and extremely challenging to scale up. Meanwhile ,carbon offsetting schemes are often thought to be insufficiently effective as many fail to deliver additional carbon reductions.

But university management and academics can do various things to reduce flying. Environmental assessments of travel and research project plans should become a requirement as part of already existing ethics and risk assessments.

For every suggested flight, it would be important to assess a number of things. Is the journey really necessary, or can a meeting be held online instead? Can fieldwork abroad be conducted by remotely supervised local teams? If the journey is necessary, can it be made by train (which emits about a seventh of the emissions per passenger compared to air travel)?

Every journey booking should be submitted to a carbon calculator to raise awareness and collect better data. Academic job application and promotion criteria would need to be amended such that environmentally conscious academics are not punished for reducing or giving up flying.

The need to reduce air travel also raises very difficult questions in relation to student internationalisation agendas, and global mobility more generally. Online teaching for students abroad would need to expand considerably to minimise travel emissions. Of course, this would have the lamentable effect of removing the beneficial experience of living abroad and immersing oneself in a new culture.

In many ways, structural incentives for air travel have become established within the higher education sector. This means neither university management nor academics will show much appetite for reducing flights. But if it wants to lead by example, the sector – like many others – urgently needs to collaborate globally to agree on reducing its impact from business travel.

By The Conversation
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