The university sector has to tackle the air pollution that comes from travel
The summer is here for many; it’s a time to travel and enjoy holidays frequently by plane. Air travel has seen a dramatic increase globally. Since 2004, passenger numbers have nearly doubled, from 2 billion to 4.4 billion by 2018, with record numbers predicted for the year 2019. The emissions from air travel around the world are forecast to double or triple by 2050, even if there is no action taken.
Universities play an important role in this by having a significant and growing footprint of air travelers. Academics frequently travel by air for International conferences, carry out and analyze research, and network and collaborate. “International recognition” forms an important aspect of academic descriptions of jobs and promotions, and more universities benefit from international student fees as well as International research grants. Many academics consider traveling to remote locations as an advantage of their jobs to help compensate for their working long hours and the pressures of performance.
Frequent academic travel can be justifiable due to the positive impact research and teaching have on society. In a global context that requires reducing emissions to zero in 2050 at the earliest in order to keep within the limits of the planet, the industry must participate in a more public discussion on the carbon footprint of its air travel and the options for reducing it.
Read more: It’s time to wake up to the devastating impact flying has on the environment.
The problem starts with a lack of precise data on the air travel footprint of the higher education sector. In the UK, the first port of call should be data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Currently, UK universities are asked to submit data on flight emissions to HESA, either based on destinations or spending on flights. This is not obligatory – in the past three years, only 43% have done so.
The data do show some errors that could make them less useful. The database, for instance, contains very high numbers for a handful of universities that skews the calculations of emissions per unit. It could be due to the fact that the process of calculating carbon emissions based on spending isn’t a reliable method. The database does not differentiate between flights undertaken by academics and non-academic personnel, even though their behaviors on flights are likely to differ. A clearer standard for reporting and data verification is required urgently so that we can assess the carbon footprint of aviation in the sector more precisely.
It is important to look into the reasons for frequent flights by academics. Bborriss.67/Shutterstock.com
The estimation of the footprint
To come up with some estimates, let’s assume that most academics in the UK are only able to attend one international conference or event each year via plane, like an event in the US, and have a CO2 emitting amount of around five tonnes. Based on my previous research, it is more than ten times more than an average UK individual’s carbon footprint resulting from leisure flights and more than 20% higher than the average UK person’s annual carbon footprint from home and travel energy.
The 211,980 academics employed within UK university education during 2017/8 will result in the equivalent of 1.1m tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, which is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint based on the consumption of nearly 120,000 individuals across the UK. Because most academics travel multiple times throughout the year, this may be a miscalculation.
What are the global figures? If we increase the CO2 emissions estimated from the air travel of academic staff in the UK for higher education institutions (around 6,583 tonnes of CO2 per all sixteen1 establishments in the year 2017) to at least 2,000 universities across the globe, that would be about 184 million tonnes of CO2 worldwide almost 50 percent of the total CO2 emissions in 2017.
In addition, there is your carbon footprint from international students’ air travel. As of 2017/18, 458,490 international students were enrolled at UK colleges of higher education. Of these, almost 70 percent were from outside the EU, particularly from China, with 23%.
If every student only takes one return trip per year to return home, this could add to about 1.8m tonnes of CO2 emission each year (assumed averages based upon the atmosfair Calculator that calculates 0.8 tonnes for each return trip in the EU, 5.4 tonnes for China and five tons for all the countries). Staff and international student numbers in the UK are growing over the past few years. If this trend persists, the carbon footprint of the travel of academics is likely to increase.