Jonas Schoenefeld (Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, University of East Anglia)

Marlene Kammerer (University of Zurich)

Pawel Pustelnik (School of Geography and Planning, Cardiff University)

Climate scientists have long been at the forefront of advocating more climate-friendly behaviour to curtail detrimental effects of climate change. Changing energy use, consumer behaviour, and travel habits are among the key ways to reduce the carbon footprint at the individual scale. Ironically, doing climate science, building networks with colleagues, and disseminating findings often involves attending meetings in far-away countries, which frequently involves air travel. Unfortunately, flying and other forms of long-distance travel are among the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, causing climate change.1

This state of affairs is generating intense debates within scientific communities, with many arguing that it is time to ‘walk the talk’ and cut back science-related travel emissions. These debates have led to some concrete action, including for example the Tyndall Centre’s Travel Strategy, the pioneering efforts of the international JPI Climate network to reduce its climate impact, and the #Flyingless Campaign to reduce academic flying. Making a strong case, the Tyndall Centre’s director Professor Corinne Le Quéré and colleagues argue in a recent working paper that individual researchers should monitor their own travel emissions, make travel choices based on the trip justification, and follow a Code of Conduct including personal reduction targets based on the country where they live.

When we, i.e., members of the ‘Innovations in Climate Governance’ (INOGOV) Early Career researchers network, started organizing a workshop on “Data Frontiers in Climate Governance Research” at the University of Zurich in mid-February 2016, we wanted to monitor our climate impact resulting from this workshop too. While acknowledging that awareness alone will not reduce emissions, few scientists know their greenhouse gas emissions impact from professional travel. With this in mind, we approached the Tyndall Centre and requested to use the Tyndall Travel Trackerâ methodology, which was designed to measure travel emissions in a straightforward way. The method involves recording the amount of hours spent on a plane, in a train and other forms of transportation. It also asks the respondent to justify one’s travel given a set decision tree.

Here’s what we found: 

Of the 16 workshop participants, 13 or 81% responded to a survey to collect travel emissions information after the workshop. Our home institutions are in different European countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, or Finland, so travel distances varied.

Individual emissions distribution

About half of the workshop participants caused very low travel emissions, presumably only from local transport. Compared across the sample, one individual (#8) caused medium emissions, whereas three had high emissions (#9, #10, #11) and two individuals had very high emissions (#12 and #13).

Altogether, we estimated that travel emissions from our workshop caused about 3765 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emissions 2 for the 13 survey respondents. Adding the sample average for the three missing responses to this amount generates an estimated total of 4633 kg or just over 4.5 tonnes of CO2e from our workshop. For each participant, this generates on average 290kg of CO2e emissions, or about 5% of the roughly 6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent currently emitted per person per year in the world. Our small-scale workshop thus comes with a considerable carbon price tag and knowing that global emissions will have to decrease drastically, especially in developed countries, reveals the importance of addressing these issues. To put our figures into perspective, European countries are planning emission reductions by 80-95% by 2050, equivalent to about 0.5-2.2 tonnes of CO2e per person per year, to be consistent with limiting climate change to two degrees Celsius.

In addition to submitting personal travel data, we also asked participants if they had considered other ways to reduce the carbon footprint of their journey. Several people had taken concrete steps: one person took a train instead of a plane and two colleagues intentionally combined the trip with another purpose, such as a conference.

Where next?

Monitoring the emissions produced in relation to our workshop is clearly just a first step in seeking to address them. But doing so has revealed two important points: first, even a relatively small-scale workshop comes with a significant carbon emissions price tag that needs urgent addressing. We hope that our efforts to raise awareness will ultimately contribute to reducing such emissions more generally such as for example encouraging researchers to use trains instead of planes. Second, we detected a strong interest among workshop participants in addressing the climate impact of our workshop, both in terms of the number of people who responded to our survey and the additional steps our colleagues took to reduce their carbon emissions. This is encouraging, particularly given that the majority of the workshop participants were early career researchers. As young climate governance scientists, we have a special responsibility to know and address our ecological footprints and we look forward to continuing this endeavour in our networks.

Acknowledgements: We thank the workshop participants who kindly completed our survey and Corinne Le Quéré, Johanna Forster, Asher Minns, and Paula Castro for commenting on an earlier version.

[1] van Goeverden, K., van Arem, B., & van Nes, R. (2015). Volume and GHG emissions of long-distance travelling by Western Europeans. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment.

[2] CO2e expresses radiative forcing of a range of greenhouse gases, which cause climate change, in one common unit.

2 Comments, RSS

  • Rupert Read

    says on:
    21st April 2016 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for writing this, I found your blog helpful. you may be interested in this related piece of mine from a couple of years back:

  • Yixian Sun

    says on:
    10th May 2016 at 10:12 am

    I like this initiative – as young researcher on climate governance, we need to try our best to reduce our carbon footprint!

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