High flying academics

Cambridge University has committed to dramatically reducing its carbon footprint. But making a meaningful difference will involve tackling the culture of international travel that runs deeply through academia.

When Professor Andrew Balmford answered the phone one afternoon in November, he expected to be discussing the environmental benefits of cutting red meat consumption. He did not expect to become the centre of claims of hypocrisy being levelled at the University.

Balmford, a professor of conservation science in Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, had been instrumental in helping shape the University’s Sustainable Food Policy. The headline action from this policy was the removal of beef and lamb from the University Catering Service’s menu, due to the environmental impact of farming red meat. As a result, the catering service’s carbon footprint fell by a third per kilogram of food purchased.

Despite the success of the policy, not everyone was happy. The Countryside Alliance, on behalf of incensed farmers, submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for data on the number of flights taken by Cambridge researchers and staff. In a letter signed by 20 livestock farmers, the Alliance said Cambridge was “open to the charge of hypocrisy as it promotes what it clearly intended to be an eye-catching policy whilst continuing to contribute massively to CO2 emissions created by the airline industry”.

The Countryside Alliance sent the letter, along with the data from its FOI request, to The Times.

Hypocrisy claim over Cambridge's long-haul flights”, ran the headline in The Times. The article contrasted the Sustainable Food Policy (one of a wide range of measures by which the University is tackling its carbon footprint) against the substantial carbon footprint resulting from flights. It aimed its fire in particular at Balmford: how dare he tell us to stop eating red meat while continuing to take long haul flights, it implied.

“I’m not perfect,” Balmford told The Times, candidly.

Talking to Balmford some time after this article appeared, he holds up his hands and admits that yes, he is guilty as charged.

“The trouble is, to some extent we are hypocrites,” he says.

Flying culture

Balmford says he has halved the number of flights he takes, compared to ten years ago, and fastidiously offsets every flight, whether for work or in his private life, but estimates that flying still accounts for half of his personal carbon footprint and a significant portion of the University’s. There is no escaping the fact that international travel is part of research, particularly if it is to have global impact. Cambridge is far from unique in facing this challenge: it is a recognised problem across the higher education sector.

Balmford has PhD students working in the tropics, for example in Nigeria, and it is important that he is able to spend time with them where they work, so that his input to their projects is better tailored to the challenges they face. For the students themselves, the insights gained from being exposed to the realities of forest conservation and the daily lives of local people are almost impossible to get second hand.

“I think our work would be far less effective if we didn't spend time in the field,” he says. “It'd be less well informed. You wouldn't train medics without letting them loose on bodies.”

His research often has important policy implications, so it can be important for him to be present at international discussions. “If you're working in the environment, if you want to influence policy, an awful lot of decision-making is done at international level.”

A major contributor to researchers’ carbon footprints – and one where action is starting to be taken – is travelling to academic conferences. These events are a key part of how research is conducted: it is here that researchers present new data to their peers for critiquing, where they hear the latest developments in their field, and where they share ideas.

PhUSE Computational Science Symposium 2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

PhUSE Computational Science Symposium 2016 (Wikimedia Commons)

A recent project carried out by the Green Committee in Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience assessed the impact of work-related air travel undertaken by members of the department, in order to help reduce its associated carbon footprint. It earned the team a Green Impact ‘Excellence’ Award. In the academic year 2017/18, they showed, members of the department took some 230 return flights, generating the equivalent of 215 tonnes of CO2 – though they admit that even this is likely to be an underestimate.

“Our results seemed to show that the majority of emissions come from a relatively small proportion of the population,” says Sarah Foster, one of the team who worked on the project. Academics were far more likely to fly than non-academic staff, and more senior academics tended to fly more.

In calculating their figures, Foster and colleagues had to overcome the challenge of how to capture the number and destinations of flights. This same problem faces the University’s own Environment & Energy Section: there is no easy way to capture details of flights claimed through expenses rather than booked through the University’s preferred supplier.

Sally Pidgeon, the University’s Carbon and Energy Manager, says this makes it very difficult to accurately measure emissions caused by the University’s business flights. For this reason, her team reports a range of figures for these emissions – for 2018/19, the reported range was between 17,000 and 27,000 tonnes of CO2 per year, in the same order of magnitude as emissions from the University’s use of gas.

Departing from the norm

While everyone agrees something needs to be done, most agree that an outright ban on flying would be inappropriate and counterproductive.

Dr Ivan Scales, a lecturer in geography at St Catharine’s College, is taking his own action: he has not flown since 2016. But even he does not believe ‘no flights’ pledges are the way forward. There is, he says, a danger of ‘hairshirtism’, of depriving ourselves of things, and of seeing the problem of flying as an all-or-nothing situation. Rather, we should try to change the mindset about when and how much we travel.

“I’ve had a few conferences I've gone to and thought, ‘I'm not sure this was worth the carbon, I'm not sure this is worth the travel’. And so now, whenever I'm invited, I ask myself, ‘What is the value being added?’”

Dr Cameron Brick, a behavioural psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, and formerly a by-fellow at Churchill College, agrees it is about ‘nudging’ people to change their behaviour.

“We could encourage academics to take a pledge that anytime they’re offered a talk, whether at a department or at a conference, they would just say ‘Thank you so much for this opportunity. Is there the possibility of giving this talk remotely?’”

Brick believes this would encourage academics to consider the impact of their flights, but importantly would push conference and meeting organisers to introduce alternative options – with the added bonus that it's cheaper for everyone. Academics could attend remotely, recording their talk in advance and then, during broadcast, respond to questions online, “like in a live-streaming way on Reddit or YouTube. People can submit their questions and then other people can vote up the questions they're most interested in. That way, you get much higher quality questions.”

Cambridge Zero – the University’s ambitious new climate initiative – together with Cambridge University Press have begun exploring options for remote – or ‘virtual’ – conferencing ahead of the 2020 UN climate summit (COP26) in December. But while the technology may already be in place, or at least feasible, to allow virtual talks and panels, to truly replicate the conference experience, such plans will need to address a common concern expressed among the academic community: that attending remotely (or not at all) would remove the opportunity to network, with consequences for their international reputation. As Foster says, “There's currently no substitute for having a beer and standing at a poster session. There’s no substitute for informal networking. That's really where many interesting intellectual conversations come in.”

Conference poster session (Credit: NASA Ames)

Conference poster session (Credit: NASA Ames)

But Foster also points to a 2019 study from the University of British Columbia that suggests the benefits from conference attendance may be exaggerated. A team of researchers investigated the links between air travel emissions and publicly-available bibliometric measurements, such as citations, and found no relationship, even when accounting for department, position and gender.

Scales believes a fundamental change is needed to academic culture. “There’s a lot of pressure to attend as many international conferences as possible, especially for early career researchers, who are looking to build their research profiles and networks. It’s part of a wider problem of the way academics are recruited and promoted, and how we are incentivised. There is pressure on individuals to develop lots of networks and collaborations, bring in grant money, and find ways to publish research quicker, faster and in higher numbers.”

Foster agrees, arguing that change must begin with institutions such as Cambridge University. “What we need is for the University and for individual academics in positions of power to make it clear to people applying for positions in their labs or departments, that frequent flying in itself is not a virtue.”

Tackling this culture would also make the landscape more equitable, with implications beyond carbon footprints, argues Pidgeon. “Some people can't travel because they've got caring responsibilities or have health issues. I've even had one person say, ‘I don't feel comfortable going to certain parts of the world, because I'm gay, so that precludes me from taking part in all of these conferences.’”

On the right track

The University’s Environmental Sustainability Strategy Committee (ESSC) has begun work on producing guidelines aimed at reducing the amount of air travel. A particular emphasis of their work will be on eliminating travel to destinations served by rail – destinations within the UK and those in Europe that can easily be reached by train. Although these journeys take longer, as Scales points out, it is often easier to work on a train than at the airport and on flights. “There's a broader argument for ‘slow academia’, for embracing these moments, seeing train travel as part of the journey and as part of our job, rather than just thinking ‘I need to get from A to B, do my thing and then get back as quickly as possible’. It’s a more thoughtful way of working and living.”

But train journeys are often also substantially more expensive than flights, which has additional implications. “There's an attitude of trying to make the grant go as far as possible,” adds Scales.

Foster says that she would like to see changes to the University’s finance policy, which encourages – or even instructs – staff to take the lowest cost transport option. “I think it would be perfectly reasonable to make people apply for a special dispensation in order to be able to fly to Paris, Amsterdam or Brussels – to make taking the train to those destinations the default option.”

Another option being given serious consideration by the ESSC is carbon offsetting, which involves paying a tariff to support initiatives that reduce the University’s overall carbon impact. A working group is looking at how an offsetting scheme might work, with a view to implementing a scheme in the academic year 2020/2021. Among the questions the working group will address are how to cost a tonne of carbon (estimates vary wildly, from a few pounds to hundreds of pounds), what activities might offsetting cover, and how to offset – for example, paying into external schemes, or using funds to support the planting of trees on University land or to retrofit existing buildings to make them more sustainable.

Balmford says that while there may be questions about the validity of offsetting – there are additional consequences from flying that cannot be offset, including using up finite reserves of fossil fuels, for example – he thinks the University is moving in the right direction.

“We need to take a hard look at how far we can take alternative modes of transport or avoid travel altogether. And when we do travel, we should at least try to mitigate the emissions that we create by offsetting. I'm not totally comfortable with [offsetting], but I think it's the least bad solution for dealing with our residual emissions.”

Joanna Chamberlain, Head of the Environment & Energy Section, says that whatever the University agrees, offsetting should only be seen as part of the solution. “Offsetting has a role to play as part of an overall package where you offset the unavoidable emissions, but it shouldn't be seen as the only solution or even the first port of call. There is a big debate we need to have in the University about the culture around academic travel.”

This debate is beginning to take place, and it is for this reason that the article in The Times did not provoke quite the reaction within the University that might be expected.

“To be honest, in some ways that article wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for us,” says Pidgeon. “It helps get people talking about the issue.”
Chamberlain agrees. “This is an area that needs a University-wide debate. It’s not something that the ESSC or my team can solve. There are a number of departments that have come to us saying, ‘We want to do something on this, what can we do?’ There's a groundswell across the university that is saying, ‘This is important, and we need to be addressing it.’”

And while Balmford admits to being initially upset by the experience of being singled out by The Times, he, too, is now fairly sanguine. “If the reaction of the meat lobby encourages the University to accelerate what it's trying to do, then that'll be a very good outcome.”

Image credits
Departures board (rhythmuswege)
Airport (
MichaelGaida)
Eurostar (
Rob Dammers)