Tech UPTechnologyClimate scientists don't want to fly

Climate scientists don't want to fly

In 2010, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab climate scientist Peter Kalmus decided to calculate his annual carbon emissions and discovered that the vast majority were due to air travel. It was then that he decided to reduce these trips until they were completely eliminated from his agenda, and in 2017 he launched No Fly Climate Sci , an initiative that any person or institution can join and thus make their decision to give up flying public.

Like many academics around the world, Kalmus used the airplane very frequently to attend conferences and work seminars and thus build a good network of contacts, key to obtaining collaborations outside his institution and progressing in his academic career. However, with this frenetic pace of travel, the researcher fell into the same incoherence as many other scientists and climate activists who, on the one hand, alert the world to the dangers of global warming, while on the other they travel by plane from one part to another. of the planet to carry out their activities.

The researcher at the Institute of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences in Turin (Italy), Mara Baudena, also felt bad about this kind of climate hypocrisy and decided to join No Fly Climate Sci : “I am a scientist, and I also work on climate change. I feel obliged to be an example for people, to make my decision not to travel by plane public, ”she explains. Something similar happened to Pablo Ruiz, associate professor at the University of Chile: “One day I calculated the carbon footprint of my last flight, from Santiago to Edinburgh, and I saw that it was equivalent to ten years driving from home to work . It was then that I decided to stop flying. “


Conference tourism

High mobility within the academic world is not a negligible issue. This phenomenon, which some have called ‘conference tourism’, is very difficult to stop: “globalization and regional competition drive cities and institutions to organize large international conferences to be in the spotlight”, explain the authors of a analysis published in 2001 in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism . “For the individual traveler, these events also offer an escape from the daily routine and the opportunity to see other places.”

The cost of this escape route is extremely high: for example, and according to a calculation published in Nature , the emissions caused in 2019 by individual movements of those attending the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the space science congress and largest land area in the world, were about 80,000 tons of CO2 . This amount is equivalent, according to the authors, to the average weekly emissions of the city of Edinburgh. And the same is true of the hundreds of large conferences that are organized each year around the world.


The cost of not attending congresses

As we have already seen, attending these types of activities is a very generalized practice and at times essential to progress in a highly competitive world with a lot of job instability, especially in the early years. “Congresses are the time to establish personal contacts with other researchers, sometimes this happens in the same conference, but generally collaborations arise over coffee or in some of the social activities,” explains Ruiz, who acknowledges that, for him, Giving up flying was not a very difficult decision to make since I already had a consolidated job position. “The challenge is how to give that flavor of the encounters to young researchers without having to make so many plane trips”, he reflects. Baudena agrees with Ruiz and explains that, for people who are just starting out, it is very important to weave that network of contacts in summer courses, seminars and meetings, since their professional future may depend on them.

For this reason, one of the objectives of No Fly Climate Sci is to make visible the conflict of many scientists who do not want to contribute to climate change with their travels but who may be at a professional disadvantage if they stop doing so. “We urge academic institutions to realize the responsibility they have to be role models in an era of evident global warming and, therefore, adopt policies and strategies to fly less,” they explain on the movement’s website. .


Virtual encounters in the era of the pandemic

One of the unexpected effects during these almost two years of COVID has been the generalization of video calls and virtual meetings between scientists. With its weaknesses, the experiences accumulated during this time have shown that it is possible to maintain and even expand the network of personal contacts without having to buy a plane ticket.

“The pandemic has shown us that there are many, many things that can be done online and allow for similar results. In my case, I think I have participated in more world-class webinars in recent years than when I traveled frequently to attend conferences ”, reflects Ruiz. For Baudena, the possibility of attending extremely interesting conferences from the comfort of her sofa is another advantage of this type of meeting.

According to a survey published in Nature in March 2021 and in which more than 900 scientists participated, 74% of them would like virtual encounters to continue after the pandemic. In addition to convenience, this modality has other advantages such as facilitating conciliation in the case of people in charge, as well as being more accessible to researchers and institutions with limited financial resources. Another noteworthy fact is that 21% of those surveyed chose the low carbon footprint as one of the greatest benefits of online congresses.

However, face-to-face meetings offer many things that today are difficult to emulate in remote sessions. “All the senses are involved in human communication: tone of voice, smell, facial expression … everything matters,” reflects sociologist Monika Buscher, director of the Center for Mobility Research at the University of Lancaster (UK). “When academics discuss ideas and examine the evidence and rigor of an argument we need to open ourselves to our interlocutor, and that is much easier to do when we are face to face,” adds the researcher. “For me, the great challenge is to replace those little coffee or beers where one used to get together to fix the world,” sums up Pablo Ruiz.

Incentives from universities

In any case, it should not be forgotten that videoconference meetings also generate carbon emissions and, as Buscher explains: “ some research on mobility has shown that online meetings can translate into more physical trips afterwards. , because in them we get to make more connections and collaborations. One measure could be to force universities to calculate the carbon footprint of the academic collaborations of their researchers, this would put some pressure ”.

For many scientists, the alternative would be to do a mix of virtual and face-to-face events. “One idea is to promote regional meetings to which most of the participants can arrive in much shorter trips,” says Ruiz. The implementation of solutions of this type would, in fact, imply a considerable reduction in the carbon footprint: according to an analysis published in 2019 in the journal Sustainability with data on the mobility of workers from the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (Switzerland), with Simple measures such as avoiding flights with layovers and encouraging the use of the train for short journeys, emissions from this institution could be reduced by 36%.

The growing concern within the scientific community about the environmental cost of their activities should encourage universities and research centers to adopt this type of solution so that academics who want to reduce their air travel are not penalized. “Individual actions are necessary, but they are useless if the system does not change ,” reflects Baudena. “In the end, No Fly Climate Sci is just a symbol, what really counts are the global policies and strategies that are adopted around the problem.”




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