Stop funding academic flying!

Richard Parncutt 

June 2020


It's time for universities to stop funding academic flying. If scholars and researchers want to fly to an academic conference, they should pay for the trip themselves. University funding should be confined to conferences reached by surface transport, and virtual participation in more distant conferences. If money is saved by no longer financing flying, it should be spent on scholarships and fellowships for young researchers.

At first sight, this may seem like a radical proposal. But given what we now know about the contribution of aviation to climate change, it's hard to imagine any other reasonable solution.

Anthropogenic climate change as an existential threat

The increase in global mean surface temperature due to human emissions is so far about +1°C. The consequences are well-known. They include:

rising sea levels, glacial melt, shifting climate zones, vegetation zones and habitats, stronger or more frequent forest fires, changed occurrence of precipitation, stronger or more frequent extreme weather events such as floods, storms and droughts, spread of parasites and tropical diseases as well as environmental refugees (Wikipedia, “Consequences of global warming ")

If global greenhouse gas emissions do not decrease significantly in the next few years, the CO2 budget for long-term warming of +1.5°C will be exhausted before 2030 (Millar et al., 2017; Tokarska & Gillett, 2018). Warming of +2°C will more than double the effect of +1°C (non-linearity; Friedrich et al., 2016). According to the IPCC (Masson-Delmotte et al., 2018), the consequences of +2°C relative to 1.5°C include:

Direct weather impacts: extreme temperatures, heatwaves, flooding, drought, cyclones;
Oceans: rising sea levels, temperature, acidity; dying coral reefs;
Aquatic life: irreversible impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems (extinctions), habitat, reproduction, disease, invasive species, coral bleaching;
Terrestrial life: range of insects, plants, vertebrates, degradation of high-latitude tundra & boreal forests, thawing of permafrost;
For humans: effects on health, food security, water supply, military security, economic growth;  heat-related and ozone-related mortality; spread of vector-borne diseases (malaria, dengue fever);  yields of maize, rice, wheat, soy; quality of rice and wheat; effects on livestock (feed quality, diseases, water resource availability).

We should be most concerned about human rights -- especially, the right to life. A temperature increase of +2°C is likely to cause around one billion premature human deaths in the long term (Parncutt, 2019). Poorer countries that contribute little to global emissions tend to be more vulnerable. 
A temperature increase of +2°C will also cause about 1/6 of all species to become extinct (Román-Palacios & Wiens, 2020; Urban, 2015).

Clearly, deep changes are urgently necessary. The entire global economy must switch to renewable sources of energy. Social and economic development must be decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions. Individuals with a high carbon footprint must significantly reduce it. By "must" I mean "must" in the strongest possible sense: the only long-term alternative is human self-destruction.

The role of universities

A typical intercontinental flight (round trip, economy) generates approx. 2 tonnes of CO2, which is about 4t CO2 equivalent (when other greenhouse gases are taken into account; atmosfair, EC/EU). That's more CO2 than a typical car emits in one year. It is also comparable with eating 2000 Big Macs: producing 1 kg beef emits 15 kg CO2, and a Big Mac contains 100g beef, that's 1.5 kg CO2

According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), a flight within Europe generates 2 to 20 times more 
CO2 per person than a corresponding bus or train journey. For example, flying from Graz to Frankfurt or from Graz to Milan in economy class typically produces 6-7 times more greenhouse gas emissions than taking the train (Hölbling, 2020). On this basis, it is not surprising that between 1/3 and 1/2 of the CO2 produced by universities is from flying (Achieve et al., 2013; ETH Zurich, 2019; Hölbling, 2020). A similar proportion of the personal carbon footprint of a typical academic is from flying.

The right of academics to fly to conferences is surely insignificant relative to the right of children and future generations to inherit a world worth living in. While academics may have legitimate expectations about their personal or professional development (Meyer & Sanklecha, 2014), the right to life of a billion people is probably incomparably more important (Parncutt & Seither-Preisler, 2019). The easiest solution is to avoid flying completely (Baer, 2019; Grant, 2018) or to fly only in crucially important, exceptional cases (cf. Langin, 2019). Instead, we can develop new virtual forms of communication such as those tried out by many colleages during the corona crisis: virtual conferences, conventional conferences with additional virtual participation and virtual socializing, and multi-hub semi-virtual conferences (Klöwer et al., 2020; Parncutt et al., 2019).

Whereas these
points have been well-known for a long time, we are still acting as if the consequences will be less serious than the predictions. In fact, the opposite is the case. Climate forecasts are often conservative (Brysse et al., 2013). For example, newer IPCC reports assume faster sea-level increase and arctic-sea ice shrinking than older ones. From a psychological perspective, people tend to underestimate unprecedented risks (e.g., Titanic, World War I; Weber, 2006; Yudkowsky, 2008).

Politically formulated and agreed
goals are not being taken seriously. The agreements made by individual countries in Paris in 2015 are insufficient to keep warming below 2°C, let alone 1.5°C (Spash, 2016). In addition, countries are blatantly ignoring their own commitments. To take one of many examples, Australia is still planning and building massive new coal mines. Europe is doing better, but even the European Green Deal and the Austrian government program "Aus Verantwortung für Österreich" are falling short. Their ambitious goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50 % in 2030 compared to 1990, which will necessitate multiple fundamental changes and transitions. It is hardly possible to achieve that if some sectors are expected to reduce and others are not. Regarding aviation, Vienna airport is building a new runway and Austrian Airways recently committed to continued growth as part of a corona rescue package. To my knowledge, no Austrian university rectorate has made concrete proposals about reducing academic flying (at least not before June 2020). Many academic staff are making recommendations (e.g., Kreil, ETH, 2019) but administrators are slow to follow.

The importance of these issues can hardly be overestimated.
An unprecedented risk is being tacitly accepted. The future of human civilization is at stake (Besley & Peters, 2019; Leahy, 2010). Urgent international scientific warnings have been ignored for decades (Ripple et al., 2017). To continue to ignore them will have unprecedented ecological, social and ethical consequences.

Counterarguments and rebuttals

If there are good reasons for maintaining conventional single-location academic conferences, the reasons for abandoning them are even stronger.

Conventional conferences are good for academic creativity. Giving a live talk to international leaders in a given discipline, all sitting in the one room, certainly helps individuals to be creative in their scholarship and research. But how much does mobility promote creativity more generally, and in what ways (Cruz-Castro & Sanz-Menéndez, 2010; Van Heeringen & Dijkwel, 1987)? And why should we be in such a hurry to get to our destination? Long journeys clearly did not affect the creativity of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Liszt, Clara Schumann or Artur Rubinstein. While Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Humboldt brothers, and Charles Darwin certainly traveled a lot, Emmanuel Kant never ventured far from Königsberg, and Isaac Newton's greatest discoveries were made in 1664-65 in bubonic self-quarantine on a farm in Lincolnshire. In the hectic 21st century, we need to rediscover the traditional virtues of patience and creativity as paths toward academic quality and insight (Capurso et al., 2014; Rudd, 2008; Thonhauser, 2014). A proven way to improve (academic) creativity is simply to go for a walk (
Oppezzo & Schwartz, 2014). Presumably, it also helps to sit on a train for a while. When you escape from the rat race for a few hours, new ideas start to appear.

We should also think about the contribution of international academic conferences to world peace. It is certainly true that international networking increases international understanding. The EU is one such success story. But that does not mean we should continue to fly halfway across the world to academic conferences:
Flying and the environment: Some numbers

Considering all sources of carbon emissions, the average person emits 5 tonnes CO2 equivalent per year. But there is enormous variation depending on wealth, from less than one tonne CO2-eq in the poorest countries to 17 tonnes in US, Australia, and Canada, and even more in Kuwait, UAE and Qatar (Wikipedia: CO2 balance; Our World in Data). Rich countries may represent only 16% of people, but the same countries produce 39% of direct carbon emissions and 46% of consumption-based emissions (Ritchie, 2018).

Air traffic currently generates 3% of global CO2 emissions. Due to other greenhouse gases, the contribution to global radiative forcing is at least twice that (Jungbluth & Meili, 2019; Kärcher, 2018; Lee et al., 2009; Sausen et al., 2005). Although the research in this area is inconclusive, it is reasonable to assume that aviation is currently responsible for about 6% of global heating. The effect of the other greenhouse gases is often ignored. According to the EU commission, International flights contribute 3.2% to EU carbon emissions (the entire transportation sector; contributes 13.6%). In Austria, international flights contribute 2.7% and transportation 8.9%. But the effect of flying on climate is at least twice what these figures imply.

On top of that, global emissions from aviation are steadily increasing. Global air traffic (in passenger kilometers) is increasing faster (approx. 5%/year; Fleming & Ziegler, 2013) than the energy efficiency of aircraft (1%/year; Kharina et al., 2016). From 2000 to 2050, total emissions from aviation will have increased 2.0 to 3.6 times (Owen et al., 2010); note here that i
ndustry growth predictions may be underestimated by as much as 70% (Graver et al., 2019). By 2050, aviation could account for 100% of the CO2 budget for +2°C (Bows et al., 2008).

People like to put their trust in technological progress. But in this case no environmentally friendly solution
is on the horizon. None of the solutions that are usually cited can scale up to satisfy current global demand (see Allwood, 2020). Biofuels can hardly be produced without destroying rainforest or threatening existentially important food production. Electric batteries and hydrogen may enable short flights in light aircraft, but for large aircraft traveling long distances they are too heavy relative to the energy they produce. Reforestation and negative emission technologies are at best partial solutions (Becken & Mackey, 2017). Green flying is an illusion.

Climate ethics, climate justice, altruism, unilateralism

Anthropogenic climate change is an ethical problem (Gardiner, 2011). Those responsible tend to be rich and old, but the ones that will suffer the most are disproportionally poor (Whyte, 2018) and young (intergenerational injustice: Meyer, 2017; Meyer & Sanklecha, 2017). Climate change is also sexist, affecting women more than men (WHO, 2011).

International climate negotiations present an additional practical problem. While most national participants strive for sensible solutions (see “Nash equilibrium”; Rubinstein, 1995), progress is invariably impeded by nationalists and deniers who are fundamentally unwilling to negotiate in a reasonable fashion. To be successful in our own interests, therefore, we have to act unilaterally, reducing our own emissions first before expecting others to do likewise (
Bernauer & Gampfer, 2015; De Dominicis et al., 2017; Drahos & Downie, 2017).

Altruism is not unusual behavior, not is it especially idealistic. Humans have evolved to engage naturally in reciprocal altruism (Trivers, 1971).
Philosophical theories of altruism such as that of Kant (Rentmeester, 2010) add a new and important level but are not strictly necessary.

Countless examples could be given. Why should the US reduce emissions if China doesn’t? Why should the concrete industry reduce if the meat industry doesn’t? Should aviation get special privileges given the technological and environmental difficulties of low-carbon flight? Who cares about Australia if it’s only producing 1 to 2% of global emissions (depending on how they are counted) despite having only 0.3% of the population? The answer in every case is to engage in unilateral climate-change mitigation, also called unilateralism. If humanity is going to have a future worth living in, all emitters in all categories must ambitiously and urgently reduce emissions, and they must do so by a large amount (not 10%, but 90%), regardless of what others are doing.

That does not mean that responsibility is distributed equally. The implicit moral obligation of individuals to contribute constructively to climate solutions depends on several factors:
Those of us who test positive on several or perhaps all of these points have relatively high "political capital", which implies a greater moral obligation to act for the common good. Here, that mainly means two things: strengthening our political opposition to the biggest polluters and reducing our personal carbon footprint. 

The latter may mean
foregoing privileges that we previously took for granted. That makes "doing without" a central issue. Are we prepared to do without flying now, or do we prefer to force future people to do without a reasonable standard of living, health, or security? Do we prefer to force future people to die young? The question may seem exaggerated, but we cannot ignore it as if we did not know.

In 2020, the time is ripe for ambitious goals. Academics are social role models. We can:
Concrete strategies

Consider the following simple, clear solution for international conferences:
I have personally tested this solution. I live in central Europe. Since 2015, I have presented my research without flying or driving in Madrid, Oxford, Birmingham, Dijon, Gent, Maastricht, Prague, Vienna, Geneva, Katowitz, Warsaw, Łódź, Budapest, Cluj, Belgrade, Vilnius, Tallinn, Zagreb, and Budapest. In 2020, the following trips were canceled due to the corona virus: Brussels, Lviv, Kiev, Aarhus, Moscow.

The advantages of this approach for me include:
In 2018, I co-organized an academic conference (ICMPC15 / ESCOM10) that for the first time happened simultaneously on four continents. During parallel sessions, participants could usually choose between simultaneous live and virtual presentations. Each presentation was witnessed both live and virtually by participants sitting together in regular lecture halls. All lectures were available to all participants separately as live streams. To explain our approach, we published an academic paper (Parncutt et al., 2019) and created a YouTube video ("The semi-virtual academic conference").

Many academic colleagues are understandably concerned about missing big international conferences. We respectfully ask those colleagues to consider the relative importance of conference presentations and journal publications for academic careers. Publications in specialist journals are much more important than conference presentations in academic CVs. International conferences may help authors write their papers, but that process can also happen virtually or semi-virtually. Many universities are already generously financing open access journals; in return, they could ask employees to travel only by train or bus and participate virtually in more distant conferences.

Flying often seems to be cheaper than surface transport -- but not when one is aware of the options and considers total overall costs in both money and time (Wills, & Grün, 2018). Here is an example for colleagues living in Austria: To attend three European conferences in the space of two months, you can invest €400 in an Interrail ticket that is valid for 10 days in the space of 2 months. You will also need some extra tickets for travel within Austria (get a discount with your "Vorteilscard") and some reservations including sleeping cars.

Suggestions for university management

The following strategies could usefully be adopted by any university:

1. Monitor all flight emissions by all members of the university and make this information publicly accessible.

2. Ask all colleagues to avoid flying, if possible -- without restricting existing travel budgets.

3. Finance new doctoral scholarships and
carbon offsets from any money saved by this strategy. For younger scholars, it is more important to provide reliable income than to finance travel. 

4. Promote new CO2-neutral conference formats and virtual participation at distant conferences by a combination of financial incentives and technical support. Ask organizers for two kinds of budget: financial and environmental. Limit the number of flying keynotes to one per conference. Offer an annual award for the most innovative, climate-friendly, academically promising international conference.

5. Stop funding flights. Do this gradually, but also decisively and consistently. 
a. For professors or colleagues with tenure, refund 50% of total travel costs (including hotel and conference fee) for one year. After that, stop funding conference trips altogether if they involve flying.
b. For lecturers or colleagues without tenure: fund 67% in the first year and 33% in the second. After that, stop.

6. Divest! End all direct and indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry -- not only funding flying, but all the others as well.

7. Promote international rail infrastructure. Since I am living in Austria, let me explain how that could be done from an Austrian perspective. Our national railways (ÖBB) are unsung world leaders in international night trains. These connections in the centre of Europe enable Europeans to travel thousands of km within 1-2 days. Austrian night trains are an essential part of the European long-distance train network. Austrian universities should encourage staff to take long-distance train journeys and work en route. 24-hour train trips are no problem from the point of view of productivity: traveling by plane takes a day anyway. We aren't working in the night, but during the day we can work on trains. Austrian universities should be publicizing and promoting the best existing long-distance connections -- not only to Berlin and Rome, but also to Palermo, Kiew and Moscow. Most important, we should be promoting the construction and upgrading of new fast direct connections to all corners of Europe, including Athens and Istanbul (improving European connections for all parts of ex-Jugoslavia) but also London and Edinburgh. 

8. Comment publicly on national climate policy, perhaps in the following way: Climate change poses an existential threat to human civilization. To ensure long-term survival (including the survival of universities and the global academic system), effective measures and rapid changes are urgently needed. The recommendations of relevant experts such as climate scientists, climate economists, and climate ethicists should be taken seriously and implemented. These include for example: climate-friendly digitization and town/regional
planning, improved energy efficiency and expansion of renewable energy industries, environmentally friendly carbon storage and tax reforms, new ecologically friendly economic models, and climate-oriented education and research (Kirchengast et al., 2019). Visible options include massive expansion of public transport in cities, regions, and across continents; reduced speed limits on all roads; higher kerosene taxes, so trains and buses are always cheaper than flying, even for long distances; transition to sustainables in all fossil fuel industries; more green space and wetlands in cities to promote biodiversity; higher residential buildings to increase green space and make public transport more economically viable.

Related projects

The following projects are interesting and relevant but sometimes problematic:
The bottom line is the proportion of CO2 emissions that such projects actually save.  ETH Zurich is currently aiming for a per-capita reduction of only 11% by 2025. The situation is much more urgent than that! We should be saving 80% of emissions in the next few years. As the Austrian feminist politician Johanna Dohnal once said (freely translated): "Treading lightly for tactical reasons usually turns out in retrospect to have been a mistake." 

Why end the tradition of refunding flying costs?

Academics should now be encouraged to travel to conferences and other meetings by train or bus and participate virtually in more distant conferences. A change of this kind would have the following immediate benefits: 
Acknowledgement. Thanks to Stefanie Hölbling for helpful suggestions.


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