Should climate scientists slash air miles to set an example?

Academics have responsibility to lower their carbon footprint by choosing transport options carefully, says Tyndall Centre

(Pic: Adrian Pingstone)

(Pic: Adrian Pingstone)

By Ed King

Climate scientists should lead by example and radically curb the number of flights they take, a working paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research recommends.

Academics are among the world’s highest emitters of greenhouse gases linked to flying, due to the demands of overseas conferences, fieldwork and meetings. That is unacceptable, the paper argues.

The authors, who include Tyndall Centre director Corinne Le Quéré, say the choices of scientists “cannot be viewed in isolation” from their day jobs.

“Although any one scientist’s emissions will have a negligible effect on the climate system, it is nevertheless critical to science communication whether or not their actions are perceived to be consistent with the message that real and urgent action on emissions is needed,” they write.

The paper proposes all researchers run their transport plans through a “Travel Tracker”, where hours in motion, emissions and the need to fly are calculated.

“In order to encourage a culture of low-carbon research and transparency, the total emissions and hours-equivalent should be published for institutions that select to tackle their carbon emissions,” they say.

Aviation emissions increased 53% between 1990 and 2011 and are set to continue rising as flight levels in developing countries take off.

An online survey with 79 members of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in 2012 found 78% had flown that year, with an average of 2.3 flights per person.

Airlines are investing in more efficient planes and greener fuels but these are projected to be insufficient to meet the emission cuts required in the sector.

“Aviation growth is irreconcilable with emissions reduction targets,” write the authors, who say the answer is to fly less rather than offset travel, which involves too many “ethical and technical issues”.

Where possible, academics should use online tools such as twitter, webcasts and virtual conference technology to take part in events, the authors suggest.

“Institutionally embedded support is vital to enable researchers to make the choice to either use alternative travel or communication modes,” they write.

Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre, told RTCC it was vital scientists made a stand against the rise of the aviation sector.

“Scientists are the best informed… we have all the information. It doesn’t make any difference to the veracity – the science is independent – but the credibility of our message is not,” he said.

“It is improved if we believe in our own science.”

Anderson, who has not flown since 2004, recently traveled to and from Iceland on a container ship to attend a meeting and argued other options were possible – even for fieldwork in Brazil.

“People have gone to the Amazon for years without flying,” he said.

“It changes how you think. You can decide, will it be challenging for my family if I am away for longer or challenging for a family on the coastline of Bangladesh who will have their home swept away by rising sea levels?”

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