A conference in Boston, a research project in Perth: not so long ago, academics were flying all over the world for their work. This came to an end during coronavirus. De Jonge Akademie (part of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), ed.), feels that academics should stay on the ground more in the future too. Its findings are published today in its research report Hoogvliegers vliegen minder [High-flyers fly less], about the ecological footprint of academic air travel.
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They found that all these trips have a huge impact on the total CO2 emissions of universities, with estimates varying from 12 percent at Groningen University to over 27 percent at Erasmus University Rotterdam. However, there are no exact figures or comparisons relating to these CO2 emissions because each university uses different methods to measure them. Also, the policy applied by universities to reduce their emissions is still ‘fragmented, powerless and ineffective’.
The report shows that academic air travel has the greatest impact on the total CO2 emissions at Erasmus University. But that does not necessarily mean that Rotterdam academics fly most, says a university spokesperson. She says that another university might heat its buildings less sustainably, which means that its CO2 emissions are higher and flight percentage relatively lower. Even though they may fly more than Rotterdam academics. “In an absolute sense, we are not at the bottom of the league of all Dutch universities.”
Good intentions and green offices
And it has nothing to do with the good intentions of Dutch universities to tackle emissions. Universities have set up green offices and publish all kinds of annual plans and policy documents about sustainability. Good progress is being made. For example, CO2 emissions at Wageningen University between 2010 and 2018 fell by nearly half. This was mainly due to the switch to green energy. Utrecht University saw its CO2 emissions fall by 22 percent between 2014 and 2019.
So what makes it difficult to achieve with respect to air travel? The authors of the report asked policy officers and sustainability officers from nine universities. Half of them said that they did not have enough resources to change things. Furthermore, they say that current measures make little difference. For example, universities often financially ‘compensate’ CO2 emissions for air travel by investing in other sustainable projects. This does not reduce the number of flights.
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Some organisations have a compulsory ‘minimum distance’. A conference in Paris? Take the train. But those rules do not apply to intercontinental flights, despite these causing most pollution. Another factor: for many academics, air travel is just ‘part of the job’. It is not so much about the conferences themselves, explains one of the interviewees, but more about who you can talk to between the lectures. New academics particularly benefit from this.
Online network drinks
This is why De Jonge Akademie – besides appealing for a clear policy and extra budget for the ‘green’ offices – is lobbying for cultural change. Academics must stop feeling that air travel is beneficial or even essential for their career. During the coronavirus pandemic, digital conferences, online network drinks and video calls have become completely normal, say the authors.
Universities must grab their opportunity, says De Jonge Akademie, and invest now in good alternatives, such as online conference rooms and webcams in all offices. Other suggestions vary from (inter)university travel companies to special CO2 quota for research projects ‘to force researchers to prioritise’. On Friday, De Jonge Akademie presents the results of the research in a webinar.
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A group of academics led by Professor Thea Hilhorst (International Institute for Social Studies) had previously blown the whistle. They requested better climate policy and demanded ‘a dramatic reduction’ of the amount of air travel by academics, by means of central policy. At faculty level, an air travel policy has been set up at some Rotterdam faculties, but there is no central policy at Erasmus University.
The spokesperson of the university wrote that ‘the academic community at Erasmus University and the Executive Board realise the necessity to reduce the amount of air travel’. “We also agree with most of the recommendations made in the report (of de Jonge Akademie, ed.).”
Policy officers are working on the issue. “At the moment, new policy is being formulated for air travel, with big contributions from the various faculties and individuals who are supporting it. That new policy will strongly resemble the policy of other universities. It will also focus on alternative travel methods for destinations within 700 kilometres and avoiding indirect flights if air travel is necessary.”