TABLE’s vision, as set out in our theory of change, is for a fair and environmentally sustainable global food system that contributes to global net zero goals, while providing adequate nutrition and meaningful livelihoods to all. As part of our organisational development, our theory of change commits to practicing 1.5°C working, including aviation avoidance.
We have written this travel policy because TABLE is a collaboration between universities: team members are based in a variety of geographical locations; much of our work revolves around dialogue; and, in this sector, travel is a routine, frequent aspect of research, often seen to be essential not just for fieldwork but also for career development, networking and the fostering of an exchange of ideas.
Much of this travel is by air. The airline industry has rapidly expanded over the last few decades, and is estimated to be responsible for approx. 3.5% of the total global human impact on the climate to date. CO₂ accounts for a third of these emissions, and the other two thirds come from NOx derivatives, persistent contrails and aviation-induced cirrus clouds that trap additional heat in the atmosphere.1
No form of motorised transport is carbon neutral, and yet when it comes to air travel, campaigners point out that: ‘Hour for hour, there’s no better way to burn fossil fuel and heat the planet. Flying is also the domain of the globally privileged, and perhaps the most important example of lifestyle change we’ll all need to accept, sooner or later, as we transition away from fossil fuel: there’s no feasible replacement for fossil-fueled long-haul aviation at its current scale.’2
Image: Is flying compatible with a 1.5 degrees lifestyle? By Stay Grounded, licenced under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Over the last few years there has been a growing movement in academia to avoid air travel wherever possible. This is partly in response to the fact that travelling to attend conferences, build networks, develop collaborations and in some disciplines to conduct research is considered a necessary part of a researcher’s career development. Reasons for supporting this movement, as outlined in opinion pieces, websites, blogs and articles from the UK, Europe, America and beyond include a number of common themes:
- Academics are some of the most frequent fliers. Whether or not there is a direct connection to their own research or teaching, their sector is at the forefront of climate change science.
- Choosing to avoid flights wherever possible is not just about individual action, it is also about increasing awareness and creating change within their own institutions.
- The academic community could set an example by trialling the types of changes that institutions would need to make to create a ‘climate-friendly’ society.3
Following on from a symposium on academic flying in November 2019, a group of academics called for universities to put meaningful travel strategies in place before COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted.4 Indeed, informed by resources such as the Tyndall Centre’s Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century, universities have started to introduce such policies. WUR, SLU and Oxford all have guidelines and policies that seek to reduce travel (making use of virtual collaboration tools, avoiding unnecessary travel) and to make necessary travel more sustainable (taking the train rather than plane, or avoiding business or first class when flights are necessary). For example, the University of Oxford has developed an Environmental Sustainability Strategy, which proposes a travel hierarchy for domestic and international travel for staff and students:
- avoid travel;
- reduce travel demand to and from the University;
- travel without flying;
- fly when there are no alternatives and offset these emissions through the Oxford Sustainability Fund.5
These ideas are quite similar to our approach at TABLE, as we recognise that there may be occasions where it is difficult to avoid a necessary flight (because of caring responsibilities, the absence of a valid alternative or insufficient time or employer support).
More broadly, as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted, it is not yet clear if people will be incentivised to avoid travel wherever possible and instead continue to make use of improved online communication tools, or if they will embrace the return of in-person events:
‘While COVID has shifted social expectations around academic flying, the pressure to attend conferences, workshops, and meetings in person is once again ramping up. We hope that our openness about flying less helps to change flying culture, gradually reducing the professional handicap for those of us who choose to align our personal actions with our knowledge of global heating. We urge academic institutions to realize their responsibility to be role models in an age of obvious climate breakdown, and therefore to adopt policies and strategies for flying less’.2
It is easy to write policies, but it is much harder to embed these policies into working practice. The professional handicap does need to be acknowledged, particularly for earlier career researchers. Yet alternatives, such as online conferences, also provide opportunities for many others (including researchers from lower income countries who are based further away from the main conference locations and those who have responsibilities that make it harder for them to take time out to travel).
In addition to online events, there are also other possible solutions, from cutting out intercontinental travel and organising fieldwork abroad through local researchers,3 to reducing the number of conferences and developing multiple-site conferences where regional hubs are linked by teleconferencing.6 In addition to reducing the growing number of conferences and events that are organised, the main events in each field could be pooled (in terms of when and where they are held) so that academics travel less often but for longer.7
So what does all this mean for our work? We are fortunate in that we have directors who strongly promote aviation avoidance and funders who are equally committed to addressing climate change. But we also need to be attentive to the choices we make in order to recognise the trade-offs and to avoid any unintended consequences. For example, should this collaboration grow and become more influential, we need to ensure that by not flying ourselves, we don't make others feel that they need to fly to come to us. Is there a disconnect between the decision not to fly for work and any flights that we might take in our non-work lives? Quite possibly, yes. In making our individual choices both within and outside of academia, this is where the concept of ‘bullshit’ vs ‘legitimate’ flights might come in.
As part of this policy we will keep tabs on TABLE-related work travel, which we will define as travel taken by anyone in order to undertake work for TABLE, starting with our recent in-person meet up in July 2022 at Wageningen University and Research.
July 2022 Wageningen TABLE meet-up
Travel & accommodation for 7 people: 850 kg CO2
Saving 44% of CO2 emissions in comparison to 7 people travelling by plane (1500 kg CO2)
Aug 2022 Amsterdam talk
Train & accommodation:
41 kg CO2
The total emissions for flying instead of taking the Eurostar would have been 111 kg CO2
- 1Stay Grounded Fact sheet. 2022. “It’s about more than just CO2”. Stay Grounded. https://stay-grounded.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/SG_Factsheet_Non-C…
- 2 a b https://noflyclimatesci.org/
- 3 a b Küffer, C. 2016. “No flying for a year”. ETH Zurich Zukunftsblog. 21 Dec. https://ethz.ch/content/main/en/news-und-veranstaltungen/eth-news/news/…
- 4Allen, S. and Watson, M. 2020. “Develop meaningful travel policies for academics before lifting any currently imposed restrictions on international travel”. Higher Education Policy Institute. 22 April. https://www.hepi.ac.uk/2020/04/22/develop-meaningful-travel-policies-fo…
- 5Environmental Sustainability Strategy Group. 2021. “Environmental Sustainability Strategy”, The University of Oxford. https://sustainability.admin.ox.ac.uk/files/environmentalsustainability… (The question of carbon offsetting opens up a can of worms that is not addressed here.)
- 6Anglaret, X., Wymant, C., and Jean, K. 2019. “Researchers, set an example: fly less”. The Conversation. 13 Feb. https://theconversation.com/researchers-set-an-example-fly-less-111046
- 7Hamant, O., Saunders, T., and Viasnoff, V. 2019. “Seven steps to make travel to scientific conferences more sustainable”. Nature. 16 Sept. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-02747-6