The Carbon Footprint of Academic Travel

The 18 January 2019 issue of Science contains a letter, Airborne in the era of climate change, written by two European scientists, Kévin Jean and Chris Wymant. They write, “The IPCC’s 2050 target of carbon neutrality is strongly challenged by sectors with unavoidable emissions, such as aviation (my emphasis).

They cite a forecast that the growth of the aviation sector could mean that aviation alone will by 2050 consume “up to one-quarter of the total global carbon budget for 1.5C.” They also contrast this forecast with travel behavior of academics: “air travel contributes substantially to the carbon footprint of academic communities, despite calls to travel less.”

Sadly, the necessity (and impact) of air travel for work or pleasure is almost never a topic of conversation on my campus (even on our college’s Sustainability committee). A decade ago I asked our college’s research office to help me estimate the number of miles students (just one part of our airborne population) must travel to get to and from campus. We based our estimates on the students’ home zip codes, and we assumed (because the college closes for winter break) that students would make at least two round-trips in a year that would cover the same distance that a crow would fly, i.e., no connecting flights or travel to hub airports. We also assumed that students who lived within a few hundred miles of Portland were unlikely to fly at all. Even with these conservative assumptions, it was clear that the carbon footprint of student air travel was large enough to make all other parts of the college’s carbon footprint pale by comparison. And, of course, we had only grabbed a piece of the true impact; a realistic calculation of the impact of Reed air travel would also have to include travel by faculty, staff, student families, campus visitors, and more.

Jean and Wymant finish their letter with these words, “including a carbon sobriety criterion [as part of the evaluation of scientists and research projects] could be a good way to reduce scientists’ carbon footprint … Institutions invariably have policies for preventing and reducing harm, which address problems such as physical safety and data security. Surely the protection of planetary health, through the dramatic carbon cuts that are now urgently required, has a place in institutional policy, too.”

A ‘carbon sobriety’ test is exactly what our institutions need. Why not include carbon footprints in college rankings? What use is a degree from an institution of higher education if that institution is undermining the health of the entire planet?

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