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Climate ChangeTransport

How universities can help academics do the right thing on carbon

17 September 2019

Dr Ella Furness

If we’re serious about sustainability, flying is a real problem for environmental academics, but the new trend of flight shaming won’t help us: collective action will. 

The term ‘flygsham’ (usually translated from the Swedish as ‘flight shame’) is up there with ‘weaponize’ and ‘influencer’ as a contender for inclusion in the 2019 end-of-the-year listicles enumerating the ‘Ten buzzwords you need to know’. It is a term which says a lot about society’s changing conversation about climate change. In certain circles no longer is it cool to fly, in fact it is better to take the train, cycle, or, like Greta Thunberg, to sail if you want to discuss the environmental crisis with integrity.  Even airlines are conceding that they are not the sustainable option for travel, with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines launching a campaign encouraging people to take the train or Skype rather than fly. Not even British royalty are exempt: In an article in Vogue, Prince Harry said he and Meghan had considered the environmental impact of having children, so nowadays the Duke and Duchess of Sussex can’t even take a private jet without their own moment of flygsham splashed across social media.

It may be hard to find sympathy for the Duke and Duchess’ one-percent-of-the-first-world-problem, but private jets notwithstanding, many of us in academia face the same problem as the Royal couple. We profess (literally) to be deeply concerned about the environmental crisis, but struggle not to fly.

In academia flying is ingrained, part of the culture. It’s associated with status, even seen as a little glamourous. In the academy, complaining about jetlag and busy travel schedules is a form of humble-bragging that indicates that we are busy and successful.

We need to change this culture, but flight shaming won’t help us.

Shame separates people, creates an ‘us and them’. In this way the trend of flight shaming fits perfectly into the current drift into antagonistic and bellicose public discourse. Shame makes us defensive, quick to excuse our behaviour, and quick to point the finger at the flaws of others. It makes us entrenched, afraid, and resistant to change.

How about instead of indulging in flygsham, we change our academic travel culture through empathy, responsibility and collective action?

Let’s be honest here, flying is great. It helps us create an international academic profile, it’s fast and very often the cheapest option. With plentiful flying we get to build relationships with people all over the planet, we get to see and experience different cultures. It helps us network, and networking is central to academia: collaborating, exchanging knowledge, building on previous work and discussing ideas is the lifeblood of scholarship, It is wonderful to be able build professional relationships face to face. If you reduce or quit flying, particularly as an early career researcher, you miss out. As other academics have pointed out, in individual attempts to reduce flying: the first to act is the first to lose.

Let’s continue to be honest here, flying is extremely carbon intensive. Often flights are by far the largest source of carbon produced in the course of an academic’s work. Some may feel that our work justifies our flying, but in the words of Stewart Cohen, (Climate Scientist and co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize): “the biosphere doesn’t care why you emitted the carbon”.

We are in a bind. Academia’s cultural norms encourage prolific flying, but what we know of physical reality indicates that we must minimise flying. It is widely understood that in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C we must transition to a low carbon culture rapidly. Rather than buy into the zeitgeist of individual shaming, let’s build an academic culture where we commit collectively, as research teams, as research institutes, as departments, as universities, to reduce or quit flying.

If we act together, then nobody loses.

We need to create supportive institutional environments where low carbon work culture is incentivised and rewarded, where walking our talk is not something that reduces our employability. There are a smattering of institutions leading the way by implementing sustainable travel policies, (for example the Tyndall Centre, Lund University and Concordia University’s department of Planning Geography & Environment), but we need more to create a groundswell that shifts academia’s cultural norms.

We need to commit together to make change: to take the train, use Skype, plan well, and make flights a last resort, and we need to do this equitably, throughout the hierarchy of academia. This is not an individual matter, it requires a cultural shift and our institutions must help facilitate this shift.

The time has come for those institutions who profess to be serious about sustainability to walk their talk: flight shaming won’t help us, but collective action will.