introduction

As academics, we face a dilemma. Climate change is real, it’s a result of human activity, and it’s an existential threat. Almost all my colleagues feel that we need to take urgent action to curb carbon emissions. And yet, as as a profession, we travel constantly by air. Most academics I know fly really frequently – to give talks, attend conferences, to sit on grant review panels, or to examine PhD vivas. I am no exception. Over the past 10 years, I’ve travelled frequently to France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Eire, Hungary, Austria, the USA, and Korea. In most cases, I have travelled by air, because it’s usually the most cost- and time-efficient way to travel. I have averaged around 10-15 flights per year over the past 10 years. That’s a lot of carbon!

Chris giving a talk at Cosyne 2017 (Salt Lake City, USA)

Travelling abroad feels like an integral part of the job. As a researcher, you basically have two responsibilities: 1) to generate new knowledge, and 2) to tell other people about it. Telling other people about your work means giving talks at conferences and workshops that are often held far away. It also means holding in-depth, face-to-face discussions with international colleagues and collaborators about new data and promising ideas. Doing so is good for your field, good for your colleagues, good for your students, and good for you. But it’s usually terrible for the planet.

Fires in the Amazon rainforest, August 2019. Hotter, drier summers mean more deforestation, leading to further climate change.
Image credit

We all know that aviation is a huge contributor to climate change. I used websites such as this one and this one to calculate my likely carbon footprint. My estimated total carbon emissions (without adding flights) are slightly below the UK average of 10 tonnes/year. When you add in the flights, they are through the roof: add 2 tonnes for each long haul flight, and 0.5 tonnes for each short haul, and the footprint more than doubles.

So how is this going to work?