High altitude dilemmas: Is GIUZ ready to reduce its air travel and move towards a more sustainable academia?

· by Rocco Bagutti · in Master's and PhD students projects, Research, Sustainability

A master’s thesis investigated the willingness of the staff of the Department of Geography to implement measures to reduce air miles and the impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The result: There is no easy way forward to reduce academic air travel. The thesis was awarded the semester prize from the Faculty of Science, UZH.

“Last call for passengers to Los Angeles International Airport.” That’s your flight. You grab your bags and head to the gate. “I shouldn’t fly; it’s bad for the environment.” You board the plane. “But I need to attend this conference. Everyone in the field is going, and I don’t want to miss out. It’s not my fault they chose LA.” Full thrust. You rush towards the clouds. Your round trip emits more CO2 than the average person in more than 80 countries produces in a year.

If that sounds familiar to you, congratulations, you’re likely a researcher! Attending conferences overseas, participating in meetings abroad, teaching classes at other institutions, and conducting fieldwork in remote areas – air travel is a central aspect of academia, and many scientists fly multiple times per year for their work.

While academic air travel is often considered crucial for a successful career, it also represents a significant environmental burden. At the University of Zurich, prior to COVID-19, the largest share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions was caused by the air travel of its academic staff, mainly due to abroad conference participation.

From analyzing data to gathering opinions

Collecting and analyzing air travel data is the first important step. The Department of Geography has taken a pioneering role at UZH in this area and was recently honoured with the UZH Team Effort Award. The next step is to assess whether and which reduction measures the departmental staff are willing to implement. And, at least as important, what impact the proposed measures would have on GIUZ’s GHG emissions from air travel. This is what I investigated in my Master’s thesis.

I designed and conducted a survey to gather opinions and willingness to implement voluntary reduction measures at GIUZ. Furthermore, I analyzed data collected by the GIUZ Airmiles Group to develop reduction scenarios for each proposed measure.

A classical attitude-behavior gap

The results in a nutshell: There’s no easy way for universities to reduce their emissions from air travel. The most accepted measures have the lowest reduction potential – a classical attitude-behavior gap. Although GIUZ’s academic staff are generally willing to implement reduction measures, they still see air travel as relevant for a successful academic career. Measures like shifting to train travel or choosing direct flights received the highest acceptance but have a limited impact on GHG emissions. Conversely, measures with the greatest potential, such as virtual attendance at meetings and conferences, are less accepted due to concerns about the effectiveness of networking during virtual events.

Reduction potential and pathways of the five reduction measures at GIUZ.

The results suggest that GIUZ may not meet its air travel reduction goal by only targeting the low-hanging fruits. Implementing less popular measures may be crucial, as they can significantly reduce GHG emissions. Increasing acceptance, exploring examples of good practice and removing barriers to the implementation of high-impact measures should be the focus.

A key fact to consider when booking work-related flights: Between 2017 and 2022, about 50% of GIUZ’s air journeys were short and medium haul, while the other 50% were long haul. However, long-haul flights accounted for about 85% of the air travel GHG emissions, with short and medium-haul flights responsible for only 15%. Therefore, even a small reduction in overseas air travel can significantly impact GIUZ’s GHG emissions.

Bagutti, Rocco (2023): Academic air travel at UZH’s Department of Geography: Assessing the willingness and reduction potential of voluntary reduction measures
Supervised by Dr. Peter Ranacher, Geographic Information Systems, GIUZ and Ariane Wenger, Department of Environmental Systems Science, ETHZ.
The Master’s thesis was awarded the semester prize from the Faculty of Science, UZH.

The results will soon be published in Environmental Research Communication.

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