Academic Research without Flying

Trump is bad for the world’s climate? Christoph Küffer from ETH Zürich wrote an excellent article: Academic research has a terrible climate impact.

As a researcher: if you divide your yearly flights by the number of papers you write and look up the carbon footprint: how many tons per paper do you get? I claim that it will easily per 3 tons of CO2 per paper, as a mathematician.

Let's say you fly every year two times from Europe to the US and every month once within Europe. 
Your emissions just for flying are about 12 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (including the effect of soot etc with a proportionality factor).

That is
- 200% of the emissions of an average European citizen;
- 10 times the emissions every human being is permitted to keep global warming below 2 Kelvin;
- requires 980 average trees to re-absorb;
- melts 20-30m² of the arctic ice shield.

Yes, we like travelling, we like meeting our friends and collaborators: but if not even scientists –who do know about climate change– don’t manage to change their behaviour: How is the world supposed to do it? By 2050 we need to arrive at zero carbon dioxide emissions, but air travel is growing at rates of 5%-10% per year. No technological solution is in view: we will not get electric airplanes within the next 20 years!

So I propose: Let us all fly  just a bit less. Do you live in Europe? I do so, too, I travel a lot, and I managed not to take any European flight in the last 3 years. Instead I accumulated 25000km in trains, got a silver BahnCard and started fighting against the cuts of the night train network.

Let us set a simple goal each: 2 plane trips less this year – 2 night train or long-distance day train trips more! And then the same in the following year — until we reach the inevitable minimum of flights that we really can’t avoid. And for those flights we cannot avoid: compensate your carbon emissions!

Some of Christian’s useful tipps:

  • Firstly: finding practical solutions

    Stopping flying seemed as natural to me as starting flying did a few years ago. Often practical measures are sufficient to avoid flying. Exchanging information on the internet, especially with longstanding partners, works well. I’ve participated online in conferences, replaced intercontinental travel by travel within Europe, and frequently watch presentations as videocasts.

  • Secondly: a little cheating is permitted

    It’s more efficient when everyone plays their part in reducing the amount they fly. A first step would be to simply cut out some flights. To do nothing, however, is not an option for a scientist. Believe me, we are serious about climate change.

  • Thirdly: the grass is always greener…

    As students, our main concern was realising on Monday morning that we had been at the wrong party on Saturday evening. That’s something economists call opportunity costs: the cost of missed opportunities. If you focus only on what you’re giving up, you don’t see all the benefits of not flying. (..) And I’ve contributed to a non-flying infrastructure. Travelling to an advisory council meeting in Lisbon by night train was a charming experience. Unfortunately night trains in Europe are rapidly being cut.

  • Cancel a flight, and spend the time in a remote alpine hut, where you can finally finish writing that long overdue article.

  • …it will take creativity and a little sacrifice.

I shall conclude with a list of links to other Academic Researchers that think the same way.

  • A matter of credibility

    The Paris conference was a high point for the credibility and symbolic power of environmental science. The international community committed itself to fundamental societal change, even though only a few experts understand the complex climate models involved. People trusted the scientists and their analysis of the problem.
    (..) From now on, scientists will be judged by whether they can answer their own calls for radical solutions. Flying is a good testing ground for this question. It is unlikely that new technologies will make air travel carbon neutral in the next few decades. We cannot allow ourselves to rely on new technologies alone to guide us towards a sustainable society; it will take behavioural changes and social innovations too.

  • Flying Less: Reducing Academia’s Carbon Footprint (notice the petition!)

    Parke is traveling overland by Amtrak for the next 2 weeks, for a mix of talks and meetings on food policy and #flyingless topics.

    For people who fly frequently, it is possible to drastically reduce flying while preserving what we love about cross-cultural exchange, adventurous vacations, stimulating work-life, and art.

    For readers who doubt my claim, take your own mental inventory. If you fly four or more times in a year, imagine that you cut your flights to one quarter of their current level. To compensate for the loss, imagine that you increased your time invested locally and regionally, in overland travel, and in longer and more extensive use of the rare flights that remain. Confirm for yourself, while the environmental impact of your aviation falls 75%, that your quality of life would barely be diminished, and even the small sacrifice might trigger a response in your own soul, enhancing your appreciation for the treasures that surround you in your own place and region.

    Some readers will consider my message obvious. Others will rebel against it with a hardness I can only attribute to selfishness. A third group will tell themselves that they would be willing to fly less if only the system were more supportive (through more understanding employers, more reasonable expectations from family members who live elsewhere, better train prices and comforts, better national climate policy, and so forth). For people in this third group, please focus for now on advocacy. For starters, especially if you are connected to a university community, please participate in the advocacy aspects of our #flyingless initiative (see petition, list of academic supporters, and FAQ).

  • Sign your personal climate pledge as a researcher (a combination of the points below) – The present blogger pledges 1+2+3+4+6+7+10, and partially 5.

    Pledge 1. I will travel by train or bus to conferences whenever it is reasonably possible. I will only fly if other travel is highly impractical (e.g <12 hours or much more expensive than flying).Pledge 2. I will halve my conference footprint based on my average flying budget for the past few years as measured in km, dollars or takeoffs.

    Pledge 3. If I fly to a conference, I will offset the total environmental impact (not only the CO2) by contributing to a carbon offset scheme that is recognized by a reputable global organisation such as Verified Carbon Standard.

    Pledge 4. If I fly to a conference, I will stay nearby for at least one day (better: one week) per 1000 km of one-way distance (e.g. by planning other activities that do not involve additional flights – another conference, research, holiday). If for example I fly 5600 km from New York to London, I will stay in Europe (without flying) for at least 6 days and preferably for 6 weeks.

    Pledge 5. I will only fly to a conference if the organisers pay for the flight. Rationale: An invitation usually means many people benefit from the trip and the inviters are co-responsible for the environmental impact. This is an objective criterion that will lead to a significant long-term reduction in emissions. An additional possible criterion: the anticipated audience for a keynote must exceed a given number (e.g. 50) before flying.

    Pledge 6. I will fly no more than once per year to a conference, or to a series of nearby conferences, taking off no more than four times altogether.

    Pledge 7. As a conference organiser or co-organiser, I will actively promote climate-friendly strategies such as teleconferencing, live streaming, video documentation, and fee reductions for participants who avoid flying, contribute to a recognized carbon offset scheme, or take other appropriate steps to limit their environmental impact.

    Pledge 8. As a member of an international research team (e.g. an EU project), I will recommend teleconferencing or meetings at central locations that most members can reach by train or bus.

    Pledge 9. As an advisor to a research funding agency, I will recommend that the agency funds not only travel costs but also the total environmental impact of travel through a reputable offset scheme, and/or discourages excessive travel.

    Pledge 10. I will encourage my university to reduce staff/faculty flying, finance carbon offset, and/or divest from fossil fuels.

    A personal pledge is a combination of these and other pledges. „Since 2014, the author (Rmk: meaning of the linked page, not of of this text is not flying to a conference unless the following three criteria are fulfillled:
    – Pledge 1: Other transport would have been impractical (>12 hours) or expensive compared to flying.
    – Pledge 4: I stay near the destination for at least one day (better: one week) per 1000 km of one-way distance.
    – Pledge 5: I am invited (organisers are paying) and the audience is big (>50).
    I am also implementing pledge 7 (for ICMPC-ESCOM 2018 in Graz) and plan to implement further pledges.“

  • The emissions of ETH staff due to business travel in one year:

    17 000 Tons, of which 96% are for air travel!

  • No-Fly Climate Sci

    We are Earth scientists, academics, and members of the public who either don’t fly or who fly less. In academia there’s an expectation to attend conferences, workshops, and meetings. Many academics, including Earth scientists, have large climate footprints dominated by flying.
    Here you’ll find the stories of climate scientists and other academics who don’t fly or who fly less. Each one speaks strictly on her or his own behalf. The site is maintained by an Earth scientist, with no outside funding or partisan agenda.
    We’re experimenting with having satisfying academic careers without all the flying. We hope that our openness about flying less helps to change this culture of flying, gradually reducing the professional handicap for those of us who choose to align our personal actions with our knowledge of global warming. We urge academic institutions to consider whether or not they have a responsibility to be role models in an age of obvious global warming, and if so to consider flying less.


Let us cut down the climate impact of research. Let scientists not only be the complainers, but let us be the ones setting an example, taking a step ahead! Let us not just shake our heads about the stupidity of the politicians and Donald Trump: let us be honest! Let us take action!