Flying in Academia and the climate crisis I

Since almost a year students are demonstrating every Friday for actions adressing global warming. This has led to the creation of new networks, like Scientists for Future (S4F), supporting this movement, but also to new discussion within academia about our  own climate impact.

CO2 emmissions are directly related to income, and those working in acadamia certainly belong to the ones flying much more than the average employee. Especially those who are working in an international research environment, conferences taking place in Italy, in China, the USA, Australia, will often fly overseas just to hold a talk or attend a conference. Longtime, this was not really questioned, on the contrary many universities encouraged their staff to present and travel abroad, to foster the ‘internationalization’ of the university. Even universities who praise themselves as eco-friendyl or even carbon neutral, like the university of Lüneburg, often excluded the flights of their staff from their calculations, or, simply ‘neutralized’ them with buying offsets (a method that, as many studies have shown, is not just not working, but also has deteriorating effects in countries of the global south – apart from being part highly problematic in term of environmental justice). 

Flying is definitely the most harmful form of mobility, and debates about the negative impact on the climate (“flight shame”) have recently reached academia. New movements have emerged, questioning the need to fly just for a few days. At the TU Berlin, scientists are calling for scientists voluntarily committing themselves to not fly for distances less than 1000 kilometers (that meant to destinations in Germany but also to many destinations in Europe).  Similar movements have emerged in the last months in the US and in the UK.

At the university of Potsdam, a group of academics has written a paper with recommendations (as it not the final version I can not link to it here). It is explicitly directed at the mangement of universities and research institutions. It suggests

  • to reduce emission caused by air travel by at least 40 percent by 2025, compared to 2018 (to be reached just trough a reduction of flights, without compensations)
  • to formulate this goal as a voluntary commitment, but support is by incentives (first class railway tickets, additional day for sleepover if traveling by train, prices for the ‘most climate-friendly’ department or working group…)
  • to install monitoring systems and budgets for different organizational units (where, within a specific unit, early career researchers should have prefered access to flights and conference attendances)
  • to create a university “climate fond” where  kind of an internal CO2-tax for travel expenses will be paid into, these funds should be used for measures to pay to transformation towards a climate-friendly or CO2-neutral university.

The ETH Zürich has started a similar project already in 2016 when realizing that half of the university’s emissions are caused by travel, and nearly 94 percent of these emissions by flights; and that these emissions are constantly on the rise. The university’s goal is a reduction of 11 percent compared to 2016-2018, they participate in the Swiss compensation scheme of the FOEN (that just supports projects witin Switzerland, not abroad). Some department have additionally created an internal CO2-tax, the revenue is invested in teaching and supporting young researchers, especially in areas related to environmental issues.

There are several interesting points related to this debate, some of them were also raised within the S4F-network:

  1. How to ensure social and gender just measure? Especially when committments are voluntarily, it is often women, young researchers or those in a ‘weaker’ position who could feel obliged to do without flights – while others, ‘who don’t care’ continue flying.
  2. How to make sure young researchers are not blocked by their measures in their careers? Especially in international research fields international experience and networking is important to get to know the field. Apart from a general sensibility towards this issue, there could be guidelines to support a just distribution of ‘flight rights’.
  3. How can the internationalization of universities and research  – certainly desired and necessary – be ensured while reducing flights? Video conferencing has become much easier – but for this the digital infrastructure of universities has certainly to be improved (in my university I sometimes teach in rooms where there is no internet connection…). And, for sure, video-conferencing may work to exchange information and research results, still, it is not the same as personal contact and exchange.
  4. Many inter-european flight could be avoided by traveling by train or, to reach further destinations, by night train. If people are encouraged to fly less, it is absolutely necessary to push for further investment in railway infrastruture – and to ensure that also smaller cities can be reached by public transport. At the moment the opposite is true, investment in railway infrastructure is restricted to the most necessary repair work. Last year the Deutsche Bahn (DB) closed their nighttrain network, for example, there are not nighttrain to Paris anymore (I just to travel regularly by night train, and already the last years, due to lack of investment, the trains have been in a horrible condition). Some of the nigthtrains to the south of Europe are now operated by the ÖBB of Austria. Nighttrains, if in a good condition, could be a real alternative to inter-european flights. Maybe, if the concept would be extended to the ministries, and more politicians would use trains regularly they would realized themselves that investment is necessry…
  5. The funding institutions are a very important actor in this regard. If institutions like DFG would require a environmental impact assessment of proposed actitivies of a research project, this could have a huge influence. The same is true for the federal rules of business travel (guiding most of the travel refunding by universitites, ministries etc.). They could simply forbid the funding of flights within Germany. And they could change the rules concerning the combination of private and business traveling: At the moment this is not allowed, a maximum of three days of private vacation is allowed to be combined with a business travel. But why not flying to a conference and staying there for two more weeks for summer vacation? This could reduce the carbon footprint easily without extra costs.
  6. If we reconsider our approach towards mobility, it would be appropriate to integrate other aspects of justice that often are not been taken into account when planning projects or workshops. While white, western academics easily fly over the globe, visiting different places, researchers from the global South or from different social background do often not have the means or the rights (will say: the right passport) to do so easily. If thinking about how to organize conferences or visits, this should be taken into account: why not inviting a researche for exchange (preferably for a longer stay) than visiting him or her? If we start thinking about the environmental costs of flying, we should start thinking about privileges and how to deal with them too.
  7. Time plays a role. Also the paper written in Potsdam proposed a different approach to international visits: Rather to go for a semester than for several short research visits or talks. Rather choose the one, really important conference and combine it with other activites in the region than giving talks at several ones in different locations. This has implications for research and academic exchange, but it could, in the best case, also be chance: a change in the values within academia, a chance for more thoughful research and academic approaches, for slower scholarship.

The discussions is still going on – interested to know about more initiatives related to academic mobility from other universitites and institutions – and their experiences, side-effects, hope and fears related to it…

Update: On the Webpage Flyingless there are more interesting informations about flying (less) among scientists.



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Juliane Schumacher (2019, 29. Juli). Flying in Academia and the climate crisis I. Global climate, local forest. Abgerufen am 15. Juni 2024, von

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