I rarely travel for work anymore. That was different. Over the past 20 years, I have traveled to the United States four times and once to China for conferences and business visits. I also flew to Antarctica once, to Greenland, and several times to Spitsbergen to do field work. This is modest for a glaciologist, for whom the most interesting subject matter lies thousands of kilometers away. However, I have traveled to another continent more than the average Dutch person, and more often than the average global citizen. Scientists fly far and wide, and that’s a problem. They concluded that global warming is a huge problem. The least we can say is that our flying behavior is uncomfortable. Solutions must come from scientists themselves, but also from grant providers, employers and conference organizers.
First the facts. In a recent preprint, a team of scientists examined 130,000 flights from more than 150 French research groups. Consider travel to conferences, field research, meetings, and guest visits. Suppose the Dutch researchers have similar travel habits. Research shows that aviation accounts for about 96% of all greenhouse gas emissions from academic business travel. This is not to say that scientists never take a car or a train: they do it often. But the number of kilometers traveled by the plane is much greater, and the cost of the plane is much greater per kilometer. As a result, intercontinental flights appear to have an exceptionally large impact. Less than 10% of all flights go outside Europe, but they account for 64% of all emissions. It just goes to show how taxing flying is around the world. Every three thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide2 To make up for one return ticket to San Francisco, you would have to eat vegan for more than five years, or nearly three years of riding a bike to work if you lived 20 kilometers away.
Because intercontinental flights have such a large impact, greener travel measures over short distances have relatively little impact. However, these short distances spearhead the sustainability policy of many Dutch universities. Utrecht advises against traveling to destinations less than 700 kilometers one way. The distance in Groningen is 900 km, and Leiden is 500 km, and the travel time does not exceed six hours. This is great, but the climate benefits of these measures are limited. It would save about 15 percent of current total emissions if all flights under 1,000 kilometers were replaced by train trips.
The conclusion is therefore inescapable: to significantly reduce the impact of scientific travel, researchers should travel across continents much less. Everything else is small beer.
The question is how. Science is international, and building and maintaining a good international network is essential. It’s easy for me to say it myself when I advocate for reducing the number of flights: I’ve already built a good network and can now do most of my work digitally. But for young scientists, not flying limits their careers. Personal contact remains important when forming collaborations. However, there are plenty of ideas to reduce long-distance flying without harming scientific exchange.
Last year I participated in a successful experiment: a fully online workshop containing presentations, discussions and brainstorming sessions. Based on the findings, we wrote a major article with nearly 30 scientists last year. Also fully online, not a mile traveled. I gained valuable connections and knowledge there, and a real community emerged. I believe that such a setting could serve as a blueprint for a great deal of international cooperation.
One of the most interesting exercises I have come across concerns the organization of an annual geoscience conference in San Francisco. I’ve been there twice. It is attended by nearly thirty thousand scholars from all over the world. And with all their flying, they produce the same amount of carbon dioxide2Emissions of the entire city of The Hague in one week. If the 5,000 scientists living farthest away participated online, this would save nearly 40% of all emissions. Organizing the meeting digitally every two years makes a 50 percent difference. You can also organize the conference in three places simultaneously: in Paris, Chicago and Tokyo, with high-speed video connections between the cities. This saves approximately 80 percent of emissions. These types of solutions are what science should be working on. This requires the efforts of conference organizers, software developers, guidance from employers and support providers, as well as the will of scientists themselves. This makes it possible to achieve a significant reduction in long-haul air travel. It is simply the only way to align science with global climate goals.
Peter Kuipers-Moneke is a glaciologist at Utrecht University and a meteorologist at NOS
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