“I used to think: I’ll try to minimise the number of flights I undertake in my private life, but any flights I take for work reasons are par for the course, and I’ll make up for them by eating a few more vegetarian meals every now and then.” However, Thea Hilhorst (a professor of development aid  and reconstruction at Erasmus University’s Institute of Social Studies) changed her mind about that tactic some eighteen months ago. Since then she has significantly reduced the amount of air travel she undertakes.

While attending a debate at De Balie (a centre for politics, culture and media in Amsterdam), Hilhorst discovered that flying is a great deal more harmful to the environment than she had hitherto believed it to be – “to the point where I would have to be a vegetarian for five years to offset one single intercontinental flight.” And the distinction between work-related flights and non-work-related flights – used by many people to justify their air travel – turned out not to make much sense, either. “They are both equally harmful, an attendee at De Balie pointed out. Obviously, he was right. To me, that was a bit of a turning point.”

In their letter, the signatories raised six changes they said would make universities’ climate policies more effective, one of these being a ‘drastic reduction’ of air travel. By now, more than 650 employees of Dutch universities have signed the letter, including fifty EUR employees. “I call on all university employees – that is to say, not just academic staff – to sign the letter. They can do so until mid-March. After that we want to offer the letter to the universities’ Executive Boards.”

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Academics call on universities to adopt more ambitious climate policies

The Netherlands’ universities need to drastically reduce their greenhouse emissions. A…

What is your personal motivation for taking part in this action?

“The debate at De Balie inspired me to write a blog post about flying. In that post, I pointed out that we should not just be looking at our holidays and the trips school leavers go on after graduating. It’s also important that academics consciously minimise the amount of air travel they are willing to undertake. I was asked to join in the letter-writing because of that column.”

Hilhorst feels that academic institutions must properly consider their climate policies, be critical of their own methods and develop a clearly defined, coherent and progressive policy. “Once I’m old, I want to be able to look my children, and grandchildren – if I’m fortunate enough to have any – in the eye and say that I tried to do something about it.”

What was your letter designed to achieve?

“First and foremost, it was designed to allow universities to have open discussions on their own climate policies, and to allow the various universities to have open discussions with each other, so as to allow them to learn from each other. “Take the universities’ air travel policies, for instance. Universities can learn a lot from each other in that regard. In Groningen, the university records the number of flights its academics undertake and their destinations. In Ghent, they have a list of cities academics are only allowed to travel to by train or by boat. Tilburg University has good regulations in this field, as well, but is not quite sure how to get its academics to commit to them. If we all meet and discuss those things with each other, we will be able to learn from each other and find out what works and what doesn’t.”

In addition, the academics who wrote the letter feel that universities should be trendsetters when it comes to climate policy. “We all point our fingers at others when discussing climate policy. The government wants the people to take the lead, while the people point at the business community and the business community points at the government. There are a great many other institutions between those layers, such as universities. These institutions may make a difference, as well.”

How much air travel do you yourself undertake? Since you are a professor of development aid, I bet you must fly to places to conduct your research.

“You’re right, flying is inevitable at times. But I do try to be conscious about it, and where possible, I will opt for alternative modes of transport or technologies that allow us to talk remotely. I have to visit Geneva twice a year, but these days I choose to go there by train. It’s doable now. When the children were younger, it would have been harder. When it comes to meetings with people I must talk to four times a year, I try to minimise the number of times we meet in person, although it is still important that we meet each other in person every once in a while.

“If I absolutely have to fly, I try to combine it with something useful. Last month I was invited to deliver a keynote address in India. Normally, I’d say ‘no’ to something like that, but as it happened, I had some field work to do in Bangladesh, and I managed to combine those things.”