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Air travel is a huge source of carbon emissions — and part of the job in academia. Does it have to be?

By Schuyler Velasco

Editor’s note (04/01/20): Since this story was published in February, Northeastern University’s upcoming SCORAI conference in June has been converted to a fully digital event. Read about the changes here.

Stephen Allen hasn’t taken a flight for work since 2006.

The management lecturer at the University of Sheffield studies ways that large organizations can operate more sustainably. And he decided early in his career that he needed to embody what his research recommends.

“I’ve taken a fairly draconian approach,” Allen says. Last year, he refused to fly from his home in the United Kingdom to a conference in Croatia. “Once you start looking at the carbon footprint calculators, you think, my God, me cycling and walking to work or whatever, it’s wiped out the moment I get on an airplane.”

Frequent flying, like eating meat and driving a gas-guzzling SUV, is a choice facing ramped-up scrutiny in an era of climate change. In January, the annual World Economic Forum drew some side-eye when a record number of private jets landed in Davos for the event — even as organizers touted global warming as a key topic of conversation. Climate activist Greta Thunberg refuses to fly; her activism has helped kick-start a “flight-shaming” movement worldwide and especially in her home country, Sweden.

Many professionals are grappling with how to adapt their work habits to a warming planet, and the stakes feel even higher in higher education. Flying to research sites and academic conferences has long been an essential part of a professor’s job. But many climate and sustainability researchers, who spend their careers thinking about ways to lessen humanity’s environmental impact, feel uncomfortable with the trappings of a typical conference: a round-trip flight, a days-long stay in an energy-guzzling chain hotel, wasting paper with all those programs and name badges.

Still, the pressure can be high to take part in industry confabs, says Jennie Stephens, a professor of sustainability science and policy at Northeastern University. “Particularly within some disciplines,” Stephens says, there’s a feeling that “you really need to show up.”

Or do you? Stephens and Allen are among the academics trying to give the traditional conference model a climate-friendly makeover — and convince their colleagues to find other ways to gather the world’s experts in a given field. 

“There’s not getting to know people over a coffee or a beer, but there are other upsides.”

Stephen Allen, a management lecturer at the University of Sheffield

The Tyndall Centre, a collaboration of climate change researchers from the UK and China, has created a decision tree to help its members make more climate-efficient travel choices. A case study of air travel at the University of British Columbia recommends a host of adjustments, from encouraging employees to travel economy-class to incorporating an emissions tracker into the university’s financial management system.

And this past November, when Allen and colleagues at the University of Sheffield held a symposium on reducing academic travel, they did it virtually, tapping speakers on three continents and hosting 100 participants from 19 countries. In June, Northeastern is teaming up with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden to hold a conference on sustainable consumption that has two hubs — one in Boston, one in Stockholm. The goal is to allow both European and North American participants to attend, with little or no flying involved.

“Culturally, a lot of what we think we need [is] not very sustainable,” says Stephens, a co-chair of the Northeastern event. “So we are trying to be innovative and the travel component is a part of that.”

Air travel makes up roughly 2 percent of global carbon emissions — a small but rapidly growing share — and flying is one of the most consequential choices a single person can make about their carbon footprint. But most air travel is done by a small group of frequent flyers, many of whom are traveling for business. In the UK, 15 percent of the population took 70 percent of the nation’s flights in 2013, according to a government survey.

Academia’s contribution to that is hard to quantify, but some figures offer clues. The University of British Columbia estimates that the carbon impact of university-related air travel is equivalent to about two-thirds of the annual impact from operating its main campus. Allen says that around 20 percent of a typical research-intensive university’s carbon footprint comes from flying.

“Some people’s academic identities are totally bound up in traveling,” Allen says. “That’s how they understand their jobs. That’s how they understand being successful.”  

Still, when Northeastern began planning to host this summer’s Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) conference, the transatlantic flights it would’ve required of many Europe-based researchers seemed discordant. After all, the theme of this year’s gathering is Sustainable Consumption & Social Justice in an Urbanizing World, and it will include round-table discussions on “Lifestyles, morality, and the climate crisis” and “Flight-free vacation practices,” to name a few.

“We reached out a hand to the Boston team and said, ‘We think it would be nice if we could gather in Northern Europe and skip flying,” says Daniel Vare, a researcher at KTH and the project leader for the Stockholm hub, which will host about 100 people.

The two teams created a compromise between a classic conference and a virtual event. Keynote speakers will be split between Boston and Stockholm, and talks will be live-streamed. The schedule will run during the workday in Boston and into the evening in Stockholm, to bridge the six-hour time difference. Each site will hold parallel breakout sessions. Organizers are keen to avoid a situation where one hub or another feels like the “main” location. Networking events, which Stephens still believes are a crucial reason to hold conferences, will take place at both locations. “We hope that this could be the recipe for a more in-between version, where you get the social interaction, but still lower emissions and flight miles,” Vare says.

SCORAI’s menus will be plant-based and locally-sourced. The 150 or so Boston participants will have the option to stay in campus dorms (which generally operate more efficiently than hotels) and will be encouraged to take public transit. The agenda in Stockholm includes a train trip to ReTuna, a Swedish mall where everything on sale is recycled.

Putting on more sustainable events like SCORAI and encouraging remote interaction has plenty of practical upside beyond the climate, Stephens points out. “It’s cheaper for the organization, and it’s more time-efficient not to have to travel as much,” she says.

Plus, it can make for easier logistics. The virtual nature of the University of Sheffield’s November symposium allowed Allen and his team to book speakers who might not have made it otherwise. One gave a keynote from Sweden, then spoke at another virtual conference based in Spain the same day. Participants took advantage of other opportunities to connect, chatting on an online platform and in virtual breakout sessions.

“There’s not getting to know people over a coffee or a beer, but there are other upsides,” Allen says.

Still, the traditional conference model has endured for a reason. At the Sheffield symposium, one presentation raised the possibility that anti-flying measures could disproportionately impact early-career academics, who might feel pressure to turn down can’t-miss career opportunities. Even among climate researchers, there isn’t total agreement on ramping down air travel. Individual flights are still a drop in the ocean of global carbon emissions, and some see getting the message out and fundraising as more crucial than giving up flying.

“It’s quite a controversial topic,” Allen says. “It’s still a marginal community of people keenly trying to even think about these questions.”

But Vare, in Stockholm, thinks that even if conferences remain mostly the same, new models for remote events could force people to reconsider their regular work travel. He says he’s already seen smaller meetings and research collaborations become virtual more often in just the past few years. He hopes a climate-friendly academic conference could offer inspiration for conference organizers in other industries, leading to more semi-virtual events.

“We’re modeling for our students, for our partners, for other nonacademic community members,” Stephens says. “So we should be leaders.”

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Schuyler Velasco is senior editor at Experience.


Illustration by Francesco Zorzi


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