New University Rules Encourage Scientists to Avoid Air Travel

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Last December, on a dark evening in Baltimore, Anna Scott left her apartment and dragged her bag three minutes to the train station. She eventually caught her train, the Crescent, claimed a comfortable seat to cuddle up in, and took out her laptop full of files related to her PhD work on urban temperature at Johns Hopkins. The Crescent would be her home for the next 27 hours.

The same weekend, Arvind Ravikumar, a post-doctoral fellow at Stanford, showed up at the train station in Los Angeles and got on the Sunset Limited, ready for a two-day trek through the Southwest desert. Both the Sunset Limited and the Crescent would end up in New Orleans, where Scott, Ravikumar, and thousands more were attending a week-long meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

Each year, thousands of scientists fly to conferences like AGU. Many of them study climate change: They make the graphs and draw the maps that translate carbon emissions into starker storms, longer droughts, or damaged crops. But airplanes emit a lot of carbon. A roundtrip trans-Atlantic flight can emit more than a metric ton of carbon dioxide per person into the atmosphere, and if a person flies a lot, these emissions form the bulk of their carbon footprint. What Scott, Ravikumar, and some other scientists are doing is trying to reduce their carbon emissions by taking less energy-intense forms of transportation. (Depending on the fuel and other considerations, planes might emit from double to six times the amount of carbon dioxide per kilometer traveled per passenger compared to trains; the ratios are even higher when it comes to other climate consequences from flights, like aerosols.)

When Ravikumar woke up after his first night on the train, he learned that 20 other scientists were onboard with him, heading to the conference.
Arvind Ravikumar

Across the country, academic institutions are implementing new rules that could lead more researchers to make the same choice Scott and Ravikumar made. This January, both the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Maryland announced plans to charge departments a mitigation fee for each of the thousands of business trips taken by their faculty and staff. And three weeks ago, Ghent University in Belgium banned reimbursements for plane travel to any location within a six-hour train ride, effectively prohibiting those flights. (Under Ghent rules, a person in Washington DC, would have to take the train at least as far north as New Haven, Connecticut, and if they wanted to head south, as far as Raleigh, North Carolina.)

Most often, plane travel for scientific research or any other reason is a personal choice carved out of an arithmetic of time, convenience, and expense. Can departmental policies nudge researchers towards lower-carbon modes of travel without harming a university’s global research reputation?

Ghent is in many ways a perfect laboratory for testing this sustainability scheme, surrounded as it is by convenient land-based travel options. Riet Van de Velde, environmental coordinator at Ghent University, started campaigning for such a policy five years ago—leading a drive to convince administrators that the quality of the university’s science wouldn’t suffer if people flew less.“You have to spotlight some departments that have the [flight] policies to show, look, they still make nice publications, you can do research with a sustainable policy.”

The new policy won’t directly reduce carbon emissions that much, she says, because people mostly avoid those short flights anyway. “But the important thing is we put flights on the agenda. Is it worth it that we fly to America or Australia for a presentation that lasts 10 minutes? These are the discussions we weren’t having one month ago.”


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The balance between a prestigious resume and emissions anxiety is especially precarious for early-career scientists like Ravikumar. He knows that the way for him to build an impressive resume is to pepper it with a long list of conferences—conferences he often flies to. In 2017, he flew to conferences in Houston and Salt Lake City. He also flew to Calgary, Canada, four times to visit oil and gas production sites (he was studying their greenhouse gas emissions, ironically enough.)

It’s because of those professional pressures that Ravikumar supports broader university-led initiatives that apply fairly to everyone. “Even if you say plane travel is not moral due to climate change, it’s not for individuals [to grapple with], it’s a university problem,” he says. “You have to change tenure and promotions so you can change the behavior of individuals.” Perhaps academia can build a new culture that doesn’t require as much long-distance travel. (Many scientists contacted for this story noted that video conferencing is fast becoming a vehicle for long-distance collaborations and talks).

Alternatively, the goal of some policies, like the one at UCLA, is not expressly to reduce total flights. Instead, administrators at that university seek to mitigate flight emissions through flat fees: $9 per domestic flight and $25 per international flight, taken out of the relevant department’s budget. It’s a low enough price that researchers can continue their travel-dependent work, while contributing somewhat toward carbon offsets. The fees will go toward emissions-reducing projects on the UCLA campus, such as energy retrofitting or solar panels—although the energy savings are unlikely to fully offset flights’ carbon emissions. UCLA’s Renee Fortier and David Karwaski, both instrumental in implementing the policy, predict the fees will add up to about $250,000 the first year. (UCLA donor revenues and endowment payouts topped $350 million in the 2016-2017 fiscal year.)

But policies like UCLA’s don’t go far enough, says Parke Wilde, a nutrition policy expert at Tufts University who is active on this issue. He believes travel fees must be high enough to prompt researchers to think carefully about which trips add real professional value, and take fewer of them accordingly.

Another effective policy might be a “flying budget” proposed by some researchers. “We would have a certain level of air travel we would all agree on,” says Teamrat Ghezzehei, a professor of soil science at University of California, Merced, “then you could trade it between faculty, but there would be a cap.”

The “budget” system poses some challenges. “Is there a difference for people in the US versus Asia, Africa?” asks Ravikumar. “Do you make a difference between white men [versus] women and people of color who have been historically underrepresented in academia?”

Engaging in these difficult discussions is the least academics can do, especially in light of how many lives will be disrupted as a result of climate change. "The climate scientist needs to tell the coal miner that things cannot go on the way they have. That is such an emotionally laden conversation," says Wilde. "How can we tell people who have less that they need to change their economic circumstances, when we who have more don’t?"

Until such systems are in place, scientists are left to deal with the joys and challenges of lower-carbon travel on their own. Scott on the Crescent woke up to a lovely snowy landscape as her train rolled through the northern Georgia woods.

Then, the train just stopped. A broken rail was blocking the path to the towers of Atlanta. It was close to midnight in New Orleans when Scott’s train arrived about three hours late.

Scott shrugged off the delay. It didn’t bother her that others caught a quick flight from Baltimore to New Orleans without a thought of their carbon footprint. “Life’s unfair. Some people don’t think about this and never will. But I think speaking out is powerful.”

Ravikumar had a different view about his journey. “We were 10 minutes from New Orleans,” he says. “We could see the city and the station, but the train wasn’t moving. For about two hours, stuck, because of freight movement.” It was early morning when the cranky passengers disembarked.

At the end of the week, Ravikumar flew back to San Francisco.

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