Towards an emission reduction protocol

Towards an emission reduction protocol

By Louise Marie Busck Lumholt and Fulvia Calcagni
on 2020-10-02
  • Climate change

On the 18th of June, during one of our monthly meetings, we discussed the topic of Responsible Travel in Academia. The aim was to present and discuss together a first draft of an Emission Reduction Protocol [1] to be used by Laseg and, hopefully, inspire other research teams. 

As many of our colleagues [2, 3] in the field of environmental science, we find ourselves in a dilemma. We are aware of the fact that emissions from traveling are a big part of the causes of climate change. Meanwhile, our research leads many of us to travel frequently by plane to conferences, fieldwork and research stays. 

Currently, aviation is responsible for 5-8% of global heating from emissions of CO2, NOx, contrails and induced cirrus [4], and these figures are expected to increase exponentially in the near future [5] One single long-distance return flight emits more CO2 than the average footprint of people in India per year [6]. However, while, per passenger kilometer, air travel carbon emissions are of the same order of magnitude as other modes of transportation, the distance travelled makes a big difference and long-haul flights unexpectedly result to be very efficient [7]. 

For short-distance travel, instead, the mode of transportation makes a big difference (see fig. above), and it has long been time to shift towards environmentally sound transport systems. However, technological fixes show not to be enough to reduce emissions over time [5]. We need to take both personal and collective responsibility and develop meaningful solutions for our individual settings.

In academia, researchers at different career stages hold uneven responsibility for emissions from academic travels [8] and the necessity of some long distance travels, or the choice of transport mode for short distance ones, should be evaluated accordingly. In Laseg, we strive to do so by developing an Emission Reduction Protocol to be tested at ICTA and later made available for use and inspiration by other academic institutions in Spain and beyond.

The protocol is based on a survey that explored Laseg members’ habits and opinions about work-related flights and alternative travel options, also accounting for their career stage and personal life settings. The survey revealed that personal circumstances, time, money, and work expectations make up the main arguments for not being able to reduce or completely avoid work-related travel by plane. Our protocol will try to meet but also challenge these barriers for emission reduction and help researchers and their institutions to see the available alternatives as well as the opportunities and positive aspects of a low-emission work-life. The current COVID-situation creates momentum for this change, as many researchers have found and will continue to find themselves in need of rethinking their travel habits and reevaluating the necessity of traveling to meet their career goals [9].

The protocol includes a decision-making tree and a scoring tool that aim to help researchers make travel choices with the lowest environmental impact possible as well as to monitor their travel emissions. The idea is to start operationalizing the protocol within Laseg and periodically update it in order to respond to occurring needs, questions, or new institutional, national, or transnational environmental targets over time. 

The Junta Permanent, a governing body at ICTA-UAB, has agreed to form a commission including people from several research groups with the role of elaborating guidelines for Responsible Travel in Academia, also based on Laseg pilot implementation of the protocol. The aim is to make the guidelines available to the whole institute and beyond. For instance, the doctorate commission at UAB has already agreed to try integrating tools for carbon budgeting from the next academic year. When the Laseg Emission Reduction Protocol and guidelines for Responsible Travel in Academia will be finalized, we will propose to include these as integrated considerations in students’ doctoral plans as well as in research proposals and grant applications. Our hope is that this will bridge the need to meet environmental targets for emission reduction with the strong will we experience among many fellow researchers to be part of and contribute to this change while pursuing our career goals.

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