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
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
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
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;
& Gillett, 2018). Warming of +2°C will more than double
effect of +1°C (non-linearity; Friedrich et al., 2016).
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;
rising sea levels,
temperature, acidity; dying coral reefs;
irreversible impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems
(extinctions), habitat, reproduction, disease, invasive
Terrestrial life: range
plants, vertebrates, degradation of
high-latitude tundra & boreal forests, thawing of permafrost;
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
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
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
become extinct (Román-Palacios & Wiens, 2020; Urban,
Clearly, deep changes are urgently necessary. The entire
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.
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.de). 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
from Graz to Frankfurt or from Graz to Milan in economy class typically
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
The right of academics to
fly to conferences is surely insignificant
relative to the right of children and future generations to inherit a
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
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
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
et al., 2017). To continue to ignore
them will have unprecedented ecological, social and ethical
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 &
Heeringen & Dijkwel, 1987)? And why should we be in such a
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
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
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:
emissions are now destroying the future more than any past war has ever
communication can be more effective than face-to-face meetings for
promoting world peace if electronic technology enables more people to
participate -- especially colleagues from poorer countries, for whom
military security is a bigger problem.
Flying and the
is elitist. It is not fair that only about 10% of the world
afford it. Whereas academic conferences may be a form of intercultural
exchange and reconciliation on one level, they are also
within a broader historical context of colonialism. Something akin to
white superiority is being perpetuated by economic differences. Virtual
communication can address this problem by allowing anyone to
participate, based only on the quality of their academic contribution.
Considering all sources of carbon emissions,
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
emissions. Due to other greenhouse gases, the contribution to global
radiative forcing is at least twice that (Jungbluth &
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%
heating. The effect of the other
greenhouse gases is often ignored. According to the EU
International flights contribute 3.2% to EU carbon emissions
(the entire transportation sector;
contributes 13.6%). In Austria,
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 industry 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.
ethics, climate justice,
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
International climate negotiations present an additional practical
problem. While most national participants
strive for sensible solutions (see “Nash
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
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
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
also called unilateralism.
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
equally. The implicit moral obligation of individuals to contribute
constructively to climate solutions depends on several factors:
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.
or yearly carbon footprint, which depends mainly on how
much we fly (given the enormous
carbon footprint of just one flight);
means including income, wealth, and financial security (cf.
et al., 2020), which help us to successfully address political problems;
of education, which helps us to understand the
environmental and political situation from the viewpoint of different
disciplines such as physics,
politics, or psychology;
color (white people enjoy multiple implicit privileges);
(men enjoy multiple implicit privileges);
(older people will die sooner and miss the worst of the impending
global catastrophe); and
other personal attributes that may be associated with hidden
privileges, such as heterosexuality, health (lack of
disability), "normal" appearance and voice, being a native
speaker of an internationally dominant language (English), or
association with the internationally dominant religion (Christianity).
The latter may mean foregoing
privileges that we previously took for granted. That makes "doing
without" a central issue. Are we prepared to do
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
In 2020, the time is ripe for ambitious goals. Academics are social
role models. We can:
and implement the term “climate justice” in our
the ethical bankruptcy of climate denial in its various guises
(cf. Broome, 2019);
avoid cosmetic measures that may appear ecological at first
but actually bring little benefit; and
as role models for business and tourism.
Consider the following simple, clear solution for international
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.
by train or bus if the distance is less than 1000 km
electronically for more distant conferences (virtual presentation,
The advantages of this approach for me include:
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
are usually comfortable for working on a laptop.
made a lot of new regional contacts. The number of foreign students who
want to study with me has increased.
no longer waste time wondering whether I will fly or not. Planning
travel has become simpler.
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
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
some reservations including sleeping cars.
for university management
The following strategies could usefully be adopted by any university:
1. Monitor all flight emissions
by all members of the
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
reliable income than to finance travel.
4. Promote new CO2-neutral
conference formats and virtual participation at distant
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
5. Stop funding
flights. Do this gradually, but also decisively and
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.
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
fuel industry -- not only funding flying, but all the others as well.
7. Promote international rail
I am living in Austria, let me explain how that could be done from
perspective. Our national railways (ÖBB) are unsung world leaders
international night trains. These connections in the centre of Europe
enable Europeans to travel thousands of km within 1-2 days.
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
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
cities to promote biodiversity; higher residential buildings to
increase green space and make public transport more economically
The following projects are interesting and relevant but sometimes
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."
Stay grounded, keep connected. Flight emissions from ETH Zurich
Tyndall Travel Strategy (tyndall.ac.uk)
I don't do it under 1000 km (unter1000.de)
end the tradition of refunding
Academics should now be encouraged to travel
and other meetings by train or bus and participate virtually
more distant conferences. A change of this kind would have the
following immediate benefits:
to Stefanie Hölbling for helpful suggestions.
would accurately reflect the urgency of the climatic situation,
considering the best current research and the academic consensus among
would be uncomplicated and avoid additional bureaucratic effort.
would be economically viable. New financial resources would become
available for hi-tech virtual communication at conferences. Academic
colleagues would have the opportunity to try out new approaches and
would be no restriction on freedom of research. Colleagues
still fly anywhere.
policy would be reported in the media. Other universities and
organizations including some businesses would follow suit. Universities
would establish themselves as climate models for others to follow.
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