The surest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation is to fly less, Tufts University food policy specialist Parke Wilde told a “nearly carbon-free conference” last month on views of climate change from the humanities.
Global air travel has “increased rapidly over the decades,” particularly for flyers in rich countries, Wilde says in a pre-recorded presentation. Air travel accounts for more than 2.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, 8% of U.S. transportation emissions, “and the climate impact would be much higher if we if we counted radiative forcing, the idea that aviation releases its emissions at higher levels” in the atmosphere.
International aviation “tends to fall between the cracks of international climate agreements,” he notes. But “on a per capita basis, the impact of even flying just on four major long-haul trips is enough to equal or even exceed” per capita emissions in countries like the U.S., Germany, or India.
Wilde gives two reasons for academics to cut their air travel: their direct emissions impact, which he says should be measured alongside the LEED certification of post-secondary buildings, and the “indirect effect, a demonstration effect, as we think about what message we send to the world as we talk about the moral issues of the day, including climate change, and spend all our time flying from place to place ourselves.”
Even in a wealthy country like the United States, he notes, the majority of people never set foot on a plane in a single year, and those who do typically take one or two trips. “So if you or I are among those people who fly three or more times in a year, the greenhouse gas emissions for our own particular practice is so much higher than global or national averages that we need to think about more individualized ways of measuring, to even have any sense of what our per capita GHG impact is,” he notes.
Wilde says a big part of the solution is to encourage universities and professional associations to set goals for the climate impact of their air travel, and measure progress against those goals. He identifies videoconferencing as “just one element in a whole array of possibilities,” including omitting unproductive meetings (Editor’s note: Any objections??), attending some conferences less, combining trips to get more out of each one, enjoying more writing time in lieu of frequent trips, and travelling more by train or carpool.
Colleges and universities, meanwhile, can support deeper carbon cuts by amending tenure and promotion manuals to make it clear that the expectation for academics to build their global reputations “doesn’t necessarily mean lots of flying to second-tier conferences.”
Institutions could also set reimbursement policies to encourage other forms of transportation more and subsidize air travel less, Wilde says, and support “fewer and longer” student travel experiences.
“It’s very important for our students to learn to become global citizens. But the question is, is lots of short travel experiences to places that are also tourist destinations teaching a lesson about global citizenship, or teaching a lesson about privilege?”