British Columbia

Vancouver academics vow to limit air travel to reduce carbon emissions

Conferences and research trips are a big part of life for many professors but a growing number of academics are concerned about the environmental impact of all of the air travel.

Research shows emissions from UBC employees’ air travel almost as high as annual heating on campus

Academics often justify air travel as a necessary part of the job but many professors are going against that idea. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Conferences and research trips are a big part of life for many professors but a growing number of academics are concerned about the environmental impact of all of the air travel.

Hundreds of people from around the world — including from institutions like the University of British Columbia — have signed a petition asking universities to reduce the amount of flying their employees do for work, citing flying as a contributor to global climate change. 

Brett Eaton, associate dean of research and graduate studies in UBC's Faculty of Arts, added his name to the petition. 

"Confronted with record breaking floods, wildfires and other climate-related challenges to human society, I decided to stop flying whenever possible," Eaton said. 

Academics often justify air travel as a necessary part of the job, he said, but professional success comes as much from his local network of colleagues, collaborators and graduate students. 

"I don't feel like this has been any kind of sacrifice," he told CBC's Rachel Sanders. "Nothing changes if everything stays the same."

Conferences and research trips are a big part of life for many professors but a growing number of academics are concerned about the environmental impact of all of the air travel. CBC's Rachel Sanders explains. 4:14

Data from UBC

Seth Wynes, a geography student doing his PhD at UBC, published a study this month on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from all the air travel stemming from his university. 

His research found that the carbon emissions from the flights of UBC employees are almost as high as heating the university's campus for a year.

"Somewhere in between half to two-thirds of emissions on our university's campus come from air travel," Wynes said. 

"That'll vary a lot depending on what institution you're at and how you make those [emission] measurements but it just goes to show that it can be quite a lot."

A breakdown of the main reasons for air travel by UBC employees and the carbon emissions produced, from Wynes' report. (Addressing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Business-Related Air Travel at Public Institutions)

He said the conversation around air travel as a professional duty needs to change, noting that his data didn't find a correlation between a professor's productivity and the number of trips they take. 

"What's really needed is institutional change or larger cultural change," he said. 

"We are leaders, in universities, in terms of the culture of our society but also in terms of all of the students that pass through and learn what professional norms are."

Seth Wynes, PhD geography student at UBC, published a study this month on the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions from all the air travel stemming from his university. 6:28

'Leaders in sustainability'

Erica Frank, a professor in UBC's faculty of medicine, used to travel a lot for work.

She changed her approach to air travel after seeing data about the carbon emissions from a single flight.

Instead, she now pushes to reduce the number of in-person meetings that require air travel and will opt to give keynote speeches at conferences by video.

"It's clearly culturally normative at this point for even the most purportedly green of institutions like UBC to say, 'Well, of course you're going to travel for international congresses," Frank said. 

"But we have a real opportunity to be the leaders in sustainability here."

With files from Rachel Sanders and On The Coast

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