Go back

Pressure to travel racks up high emissions

Researchers should rethink their travel routines to cut their carbon footprints and improve their public credibility, an online conference on climate-friendly research was told.

The conference, held from 11 to 14 November, heard that three-quarters of researchers in Europe would like to travel less but feel under pressure to attend conferences and meetings to further their careers. This attitude contributes to carbon emissions associated with conference travel, 90 per cent of which are from air travel. For the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, this added up to 66,000 tonnes—twice as much as the University of Oslo emits in a whole year.

Helga Kromp-Kolb, a climate researcher at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, urged researchers to resist the “vanity parade” of conference attendance. “We should refrain from conference tourism,” she said. “It should be a privilege to attend, for example, the UN Climate Change Conferences.”

The online conference, organised by the Austrian branch of the EU’s Joint Programme Initiative on climate, heard that many scientists are unhappy about the impact of excessive travel on their working lives. Participants called for a rethink of the perceived importance of conference attendance for career progression.

“There was no professional need for all this travelling 20 years ago, so it is an invented need,” says Erica Thompson, a climate researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Thompson said she declined to attend a conference in Chicago recently as it was not essential for her to be there. “So far, refusing attendance hasn’t been career suicide,” she said, “but we’ll have to see.”

Speakers said that universities could do more to encourage staff to reduce travel and emissions. In Europe, universities and research institutions are responsible for 12 per cent of all public-sector emissions, according to the UK government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change.

Tobias Kirchhoff, who is writing a masters thesis on sustainability in universities at the Vienna University of Economics and Business, warns that most institutions aren’t doing much to cut emissions. “There is a lack of training for staff, a lack of awareness and problems with budgets for developing emission strategies,” he says.

The conference, which attracted 40 participants from five continents, was held entirely online, which organisers claimed would save about 30 tonnes of carbon emissions.