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Debate article: Reducing Climate Impact from Academic Travel through Targeted Academic Governance

Published Jun 04, 2019
Wouter van der Wijngaart in front of a tree.
Wouter van der Wijngaart, Professor, KTH Royal Institute of Technology, EECS Division of Micro and Nanosystems

In January I flew from Stockholm, Sweden, to Seoul, Korea, and back, to participate in an international academic conference. My flight, via Dubai, produced approximately 4.3 tons of CO2, which is 2.15 times one person’s yearly sustainable CO2 budget.[i] After returning home, 2019 still had eleven months to go.

This case of academic travel pollution is not an isolated one. In Sweden, long distance business travel is the primary source of climate impact at universities, and Swedish universities have the largest climate impact from travel amongst all Swedish governmental organisations. We scientists, those who ought to lead by example, find ourselves amongst the world’s biggest CO2 producers. We, the ones whom society expects global solutions from, fail in defining a sustainable solution for our own scientific communities.

In the search for a solution, and assuming a utilitarian approach, the core question we must ask ourselves is the following: Will the value we create for society by building and maintaining our scientific community compensate for the environmental cost of our travel? For me personally, this question translates to: Do I wisely invest the future resources of my three children with my actions today?

The easy answer to this question is: we can impossibly know. Our scientific impact on future societies depends on so many unknowns and lies so far in the future that its value today cannot be predicted. Unfortunately, this answer is not satisfactory.

Two ways of addressing this challenge are individual engagement and institutional governance.

Although it has the outspoken goal to reduce travel impact with 20% during the period 2016-20,[ii] KTH almost purely relies on the spontaneous emergence of personal engagement from individual researchers. KTH neither controls nor provides us with a strong incentive to act. They might as well try to reduce employment costs by having their employees set their own salaries and rely on spontaneous solidarity…

In a recent chronicle, I suggest a scheme to incentivise individual scientist.[iii] In short, I suggest academics must openly publish, before every long travel, a justification for spending the environmental resources of (my children and) society. Such a record would hold KTH and its scientists responsible during the decades to come. Unfortunately, even this may prove insufficient.

Using academic governance as a tool would be more straightforward and more impactful. KTH could cap travel-related CO2 emission by decree. For example, demand each division to reduce its annual travel-related CO2 emission with 25%. All travel requests and reimbursements beyond this limit would be automatically denied. Divisions could plan their travel reduction by carefully valuing each journey from their employees; those not planning would find their employees stuck at their offices between October and December.

In the spirit of Greta Thunberg, universities must stop hiding from their responsibilities. Weak incentives to solve their excessive climate impact are insufficient. We have heard enough debates and analyses about this problem. Now is the time for effective action.

Words: Wouter van der Wijngaart

Professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology

This is a debate article written by an employee at KTH. This means that opinions are the writer's own.

Belongs to: Current
Last changed: Jun 04, 2019