Two scholars share their thoughts on the route towards a more sustainable society in Studio Erasmus, EUR’s monthly talk show in the Rotterdam Theatre. They hold a passionate plea for CO2 taxes, road pricing and political momentum. But then moderator Geert Maarse inquires after their own track record.
Industrial ecologist Arnold Tukker (Leiden University) fesses up one of his ‘vices’: he flies quite a bit. “I should cut up my frequent flyer card on the spot, actually.” Maarse, quick off the bat: “Well, why not take it out of your wallet then?” The audience laughs; Tukker covers his eyes and says nothing. “Why not?” asks Maarse. Tukker remains silent.
Cohesive air travel policy
‘Academics must make more conscious decisions regarding their work-related flights’
Twenty-two prominent academics working at Dutch universities sounded the alarm last week…
This calls a debate to mind that was recently sparked by scholars at the Netherlands’ universities by means of a climate letter(which has since been co-signed by almost 1,200 university staff members). Although many scholars at Dutch universities participate in the climate debate, our institutions themselves often don’t pursue an ambitious agenda when it comes to climate change,” they write. One of the key demands in the letter is the development of a cohesive air travel policy to “dramatically cut back on flying, accompanied by clear and concrete targets.”
This gives rise to a number of questions. What kind of air travel policies have the Netherlands’ universities adopted? Do they keep a record of staff members’ flights? And what is Erasmus University doing in this area? An informal poll among different universities reveals four basic flavours: no policy whatsoever, non-binding recommendations, carbon compensation or a ban.
A number of universities, including those of Wageningen and Groningen, work with travel recommendations. “We tell our staff: always check whether you can travel to your destination by some other means than flying,” says the University of Groningen spokesperson. Wageningen advises its staff to travel easy-to-reach destinations by train and use public transport and technical conference options (e.g. Skype) whenever possible.
In many cases, this approach is combined with the registration of the number of flights booked by university staff. “All flights are booked via the university’s internal desk. This allows us to keep track of the number of flights taken by our staff and to actively dissuade scholars from flying to destinations that are relatively easy to reach by alternative means of transport.”
Flying is also discouraged at Tilburg University, according to TU’s university magazine Univers. In principle, the university advises staff to complete journeys under 500 km by public transport, unless this proves impossible or inefficient. And this policy seems to be bearing fruit, writes Univers: “In the top ten of most-frequently booked flights within Europe, only one destination actually falls within the 500 km radius.” However, “there’s no central monitoring of this policy – each of the faculties and divisions checks for itself whether the agreements are adhered to.”
Wageningen and Groningen are satisfied with this approach. “It’s working out fine so far. Our records allow us to anticipate the figures, and we’ve succeeded in reducing the number of flights to locations where this isn’t really necessary,” says Groningen’s spokesperson. Reading Groningen’s ‘Roadmap 2015-2020’ for sustainability, it becomes clear that Groningen intends to take things a step further in the years ahead and actually compensate for its staff members’ air travel.
They’ve already taken this step at Utrecht University. They also have an internal desk that records all flights taken by staff members. However, they also use this information to determine the volume of emissions generated by these trips. “The university has been compensating for these emissions since 2018. We pay an amount equivalent to the CO2 emissions generated by our staff to a firm that compensates for this impact.”
Utrecht University’s partner in question is the Climate Neutral Group. What does this company invest in? According to the organisation, it invests in “carefully selected projects” that contribute to “the development of less developed and developing countries”. A wind farm in India, for example, or a hydroelectric plant in China.
Ban on flights under 500 km
The most far-reaching option is a partial ban on flying. One of the front runners in this area is Ghent University, which is named as a ‘shining example’ by a number of Dutch universities. For example, Nijmegen is considering following the Belgian university’s lead, writes its university magazine VOX. And Utrecht is also discussing this measure, according to a university spokesperson.
Ghent University no longer offers air travel as a transport option for destinations that “can be reached from Ghent by bus or train within less than 6 hours, or cities that do not take longer to travel to by train than by air” – a total that includes both travel and waiting times. And in cases where Ghent’s university staff do travel by air, their flight is compensated for in a scheme similar to the one adopted by Utrecht. How is it working out? “We started six months ago, so it’s too early in the day for an evaluation,” says a spokesperson.
Erasmus: too little (so far)
And EUR? “So far, we only offer travel recommendations,” says spokesperson Sandra van Beek. “We currently don’t have any bans or active deterrents in place. And since we don’t have a central booking desk, we don’t register how many flights are taken by our scholars either.” When we check with various faculties (Erasmus MC, Rotterdam School of Management, International Institute of Social Studies), we learn that they haven’t adopted an air travel policy at the faculty level either.
Van Beek does say that EUR is examining a proposal to realise a CO2-neutral campus by 2024. This proposal also deals with air travel. “It suggests making journeys of up to 500 km or 6 hours’ travel time by rail rather than air.” Fairly similar to Ghent’s policy, in other words.
Professor quits flying
At the individual level, EUR scholarsare already taking these issues to heart. Endowed Professor of Legal Aspects of International Corporate Social Responsibility Liesbeth Enneking (ESL), the other participant in the Studio Erasmus panel debate, is less flustered by Maarse’s inquiry: two years ago, she decided to quit flying altogether.
As far as Enneking’s concerned, the university shouldn’t hesitate to rein in its staff members’ flying habits. “We should actually aim to be at the forefront of this debate. When you look at its communication with the outside world, our current Executive Board appears to set great store by sustainability. Which means we need to put our money where our mouth is.”
‘Conferences are a nice break’
Enneking isn’t too convinced of the added value of conferences. “I don’t need conferences to reach my academic audience – a journal article does the trick too. Besides: how many academic conferences really add something? We’ve jointly decided that attending international conferences is important for your resume. But personally, I’ve always been disappointed by how of my few discussions with peers were truly fruitful. In some cases, conferences are mainly good for your ego – and a nice break besides.”
Taking an international flight to meet your peers is a privilege that we’ve become too comfortable with – and that we’ve even started seeing as a necessity rather than a perk, according to Enneking. “If only for our planet’s sake, we shouldn’t allow this to continue on the present scale. I’d like my two-year-old daughter to still have a future.”