Imagine a text field where we must motivate our travel

2019-03-06

Column by Wouter van der Wijngaart, Professor at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology, about soul-searching to reduce the climate impact of academic travel.

In January I flew from Stockholm, Sweden, to Seoul, Korea, and back, to participate in an international academic conference. My flight produced 1.4 tons of CO2, which amounts to 70 per cent of one person’s yearly sustainable CO2 budget. And now, 2019 has ten months to go.

My scientific community is an international one. I meet with colleagues from all over the world, typically twice a year, when we all convene to discuss, teach, learn, and plan the future. We also socialise: this is my professional family. I have a hard time imagining my research community without meeting this family, without these international meetings.

The times I participated to webinars, or worse, teleconferences, I found myself distracted, unengaged, and, after only a couple of hours of meeting, mentally exhausted.

For over a decade now people have talked about digital communication and telepresence as an alternative to physical meetings. Current solutions, however, form a poor alternative; the times I participated to webinars, or worse, teleconferences, I found myself distracted, unengaged, and, after only a couple of hours of meeting, mentally exhausted. Telepresence is a far cry from the creative and value-creating interactions that often result from person-to-person physical interactions.

And so, we academic scientists, those who are supposed to lead example, find ourselves amongst the world’s biggest CO2 contributors. We fail in defining a structural solution for maintaining our scientific communities sustainable.

Will the value I create for society by building and maintaining our scientific community compensate for the environmental cost of our travel?

In the search for a solution, and assuming a utilitarian approach, the core question we must ask ourselves is the following: Will the value I create for society by building and maintaining our scientific community compensate for the environmental cost of our travel? For me personally, this question translates to: Do I wisely invest the future resources of my three children with my actions today?

The easy answer to this question is: we can impossibly know. The impact of our fundamental research on future societies depends on so many unknowns and lays so far in the future that its value today cannot be predicted. Unfortunately, this answer is not satisfactory.

So this has to be my New Year’s intention: Before every long haul flight, I must openly publish a short clarification, aimed at my children and the rest of society, in which I motivate why me spending their environmental resources is justified. If I cannot write such motivation, I must refrain from travelling.

Beyond this being a personal exercise, I think that systematically employing such a scheme for all scientists in an academic institution may result in a tangible reduction of their travel impact. Imagine every online travel request containing an obligatory free text field where we must motivate our travel, and which’ content is automatically published online. Importantly, this is not just a contemporary duty; this is a record that will hold us responsible during the decades to come.

I have a hunch that this idea may stir up comments from my fellows. Allow me to pre-empt some expected reactions.

Q: So you want to increase our administrative load further?

A: Yes, this is important enough.

Q: Isn’t the impact of a few academians negligible compared to the pollution in the rest of the world?

A: This question can be answered in many ways. The obvious reply is that if every person waives personal impact, nothing ever happens. Moreover, especially as academians, we must set an example if we want to remain credible in our other actions. But what drives me personally most is that I must be able to watch my children in the eyes, now, but also within thirty years from now.

Q: Technology will solve this issue.

A: It may, and let us hope it does. However, we cannot afford to wait. Let us work hard to create these technical solutions, and in the meantime be very careful with our actions.

Q: Public shaming your fellows constitutes a poor structural solution.

A: Public shaming is indeed known to induce denial and counter-struggle. However, it is not my shaming that should worry you, but that of our children!

Q: You ride a car to work every day, so start with reducing your own impact.

A: Yes, I do ride a car to work, every day. Me bad. I promise I will try to work on that too…

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