Climate change scientists should rein in own emissions: researcher

By Emily Chung, CBCNews.ca

Ironically, tonnes of carbon dioxide are spewed into the atmosphere each year by scientists conducting climate change research in the Arctic.

"I think we are generally aware of the vast amount of carbon our research produces, but most of us have not done much to reduce our carbon dioxide production or even calculated its amount," acknowledged University of Calgary researcher Ryan Brook in a paper published in the June issue of Arctic, the journal of the university's Arctic Institute of North America.

The paper, titled "Ignoring the elephant in the room: The carbon footprint of climate change research" goes on to ask how scientists can "argue to the world that reducing carbon dioxide output is so important if we are not willing to undertake change on our own?"

Heading to the Arctic, is, by nature, an energy-guzzling venture as I reflected guiltily on my own trip up north last year to observe scientists at work on a Canadian research vessel CCGS Amundsen.

Getting to the ship required three separate flights: Ottawa to Edmonton to Inuvik, then a two-hour flight north to the ship itself. A great cloud of smoke constantly billowed from the vessel, darkening ominously whenever a new barrel of oil was installed. The fuel had to be burned to power and heat the ship even when the ship was not moving. Tractors and snowmobiles were constantly in use, and some had to be left idling when parked because it was so cold that their engines could not be restarted if they were turned off. At one point, I accompanied the ship's captain and the chief scientist on a mission in an SUV of a helicopter that required two pilots and gulped Jet A fuel at a frightening rate.

I also couldn't help noticing that perhaps the research funding policies made things worse – the government-funded project had a certain budget allocated to "helicopter time," and as the budget year neared its end, there seemed to be pressure to use it all up.

Brook said he travels often to do research and teaching in the north as well as to conferences in meeting to the south. He estimated that he produces an average of 8.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year through research alone – not including his personal life - and that is average or low compared to other researchers. He added that the average Toronto citizen produces about 8.6 tonnes per year. And while the small number of Arctic researchers has a relatively small impact, Brook wrote, he thinks the optics matter.

"How can we argue to the world that reducing carbon dioxide output is so important if we are not willing to undertake change on our own? Yet how can we reduce our use of fossil fuels while still conducting research and monitoring in the North?" he asked.

Brook acknowledged that his questions aren't easy ones to answer.

"But it is time to start thinking and talking about them."

He suggested that there are ways for scientists to reduce the amount of carbon they emit, such as using solar or wind power instead of gas-fired generators. I heard some interesting ideas myself from the crew of the Amundsen, who were also aware of the ship's impact. For example, the second lieutenant said he thought research ships would be easier on the Arctic environment if they were nuclear powered.

I suspect that when Arctic researchers do start thinking and talking about their carbon footprint, a very interesting discussion will result.