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The Young Academy: Dutch academia should take measures to tackle flying addiction

How often did you get on a plane in 2019 for a conference, a lecture or fieldwork? Chances are you can't answer this question without flying shame. As a result of internationalisation and cheap airline tickets, Dutch academia has become addicted to flying in recent decades.

Many academics see that so much flying is unsustainable, but see few alternatives in their current professional practice. Now that COVID-19 has clipped our wings, the Young Academy has investigated how big our flying problem really is, what measures Dutch universities are taking to limit CO2 emissions from flying, and how effective those measures are. The conclusion is stark: if we want to prevent things from becoming business as usual again after the COVID-19 pandemic, solid investments and painful choices are needed. We need to talk about flying.

The figures: a major problem

Sustainability reports from universities show that emissions from flying make up a significant proportion of the total CO2 emissions of Dutch universities: estimates range from 12.1 percent (University of Groningen) to as much as 27.4 percent (Erasmus University Rotterdam), with an average of 18.7 percent. This shows that we are facing a serious problem: without tackling flying, a sustainable university is a distant prospect.

At the same time, the figures are part of this problem, because they are deficient and incomplete. Only 7 out of 14 universities reported an estimate of the share of air traffic in their CO2 emissions, and their measurement methods vary. For example, only a few universities have a travel agency that enables them to properly monitor staff flights and thus the effect of their flight policy. Important information (such as differences in flight emissions between areas of science or between academics at different stages of their careers) is therefore hidden. In order to really tackle the flying problem, more and better figures are indispensable.

Policy: low-hanging fruit

In recent years, universities have paid a great deal of attention to sustainability policy. The ambitions are clear and the initial results are impressive too. For example, Leiden University claims it reduced its CO2 footprint by no less than 50 percent between 2016 and 2019. Expensive and difficult choices are not shunned. University buildings have been or are being made more sustainable, meat and fish are being removed from the standard catering range. But when it comes to our flying behaviour, universities still shirk painful interventions. Policies in this area are fragmented and ineffective.

Two measures are by far the most popular to date to reduce emissions from flying: a minimum distance within which flights are not reimbursed, and funding carbon offsetting projects. The impact of both measures is questionable to say the least. The minimum distance is not always mandatory, and at 500 kilometres it is too short to have any impact. Figures from Leiden University show that only five percent of academic air travel relates to destinations that can be reached by land within six hours.. Intercontinental flights, which account for most emissions, are not addressed at all.

Carbon offsetting is often voluntary: only three universities make the financing of carbon offsetting projects compulsory. Moreover, there is a great deal of debate about the effectiveness of offsetting. Even the CEO of Germany's largest carbon offsetting project regards offsetting as "only the third best option, after avoidance and reduction". Offsetting is better than nothing, but it is above all reminiscent of a medieval indulgence: it redeems our sins, but its effectiveness is impossible to determine. At worst, we're dealing with "ecocolonialism" that legitimises harmful behaviour.

So, what's the alternative?

More is needed for sustainable science. First of all, of course, the academics must do more themselves: they have to change their behaviour. The current experiences with online conferences can help enormously and will hopefully be continued. If you do organise a physical conference after the COVID-19 pandemic, it can help to think carefully about the locations. A recent study by Teun Bousema et al. shows that smart decentralisation of large conferences can lead to CO2 savings of as much as 58 percent.

However, the climate is posing a collective action problem that cannot be solved by invoking the individual responsibility of academics, certainly not as long as they depend on international mobility for their careers. Universities and research funders should play a powerful, guiding role in bringing about a cultural change in academia. Debate about this role is desperately needed. On behalf of the Young Academy, we are making four urgent kick-off recommendations:

  1. Take more coercive measures to reduce air traffic. The time for non-binding advice is over. A ban on flights to destinations that can be reached by land within eight hours would be a good start. Universities should also consider setting flight emission quotas for research projects or groups, in order to force researchers to fly only if there is significant added value in doing so. Research funders also have a role to play here: they can impose binding conditions on flying behaviour when awarding research grants.
  2. Invest in alternatives Building an infrastructure for digital or hybrid conferences, starting with a webcam in every office, which is necessary in many faculties. In addition, offer support in organising climate-friendly conferences or make climate-neutral conferences attractive (also from a financial point of view).
  3. Set specific long-term goals and make them measurable. The establishment of inter-university travel agencies seems to be an important condition in this respect. Universities with such a travel agency can keep track of how many staff actually fly and can influence that mobility.
  4. Reward good behaviour. Perhaps the most important prerequisite for a culture change is that universities and research funders ensure that flying a great deal no longer promotes a successful academic career. Therefore, ensure a healthy balance between international experience and responsible travel in application procedures and assessments, and reward academics who travel responsibly, with for example extra time or support.

Webinar

On 13 November 2020, the Young Academy is organising a webinar on flying in academia. Register here to participate.

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