(Picture by Stay Grounded, CC-BY-NC-SA licence)

As researchers we are accustomed to frequent long-distance trips – boarding flights to conferences, project meetings, field trips or invited talks is part and parcel of our professional life. A previous blogpost on Climate Footnotes has already addressed the problem of travel emissions from academic air travel and has outlined possible measures to reduce them. More recently, the covid-19 crisis has forced most of us to stay grounded and resort to videoconferences as an alternative to face-to-face meetings. Can these experiences also help us to reduce travel emissions in academia in the long run?

Let us first explore why the reduction of emissions from air travel in academia is such a thorny problem. Shouldn’t we at least expect climate researchers to lead by example and dramatically cut their travel emissions? Recent research shows climate researchers fly even more than colleagues of other disciplines, while at the same time they are more often involved in measures to offset or reduce their flights. While knowledge on the adverse impacts of aviation on our climate influences intentions to fly less, actual behaviour is more strongly shaped by social and structural contexts.[i]

Academic air travel and carbon lock-in

This can be interpreted as a case of ‘carbon lock-in’: The interaction of established technologies, infrastructures, institutions and behavioural norms constrain our choices and trap us in carbon-intensive practices.[ii] In the case of academic flying, lock-in factors certainly include university travel guidelines, internationalisation agendas and academic reward systems. But they also extend to widely shared habits on trip organisation, our easy and relatively cheap access to an aviation infrastructure as well as deeply rooted understandings of extensive air travel as an indispensable part of our mobility system.[iii]

Lock-in situations are by definition difficult to overcome. However, possible sources of change include niche experiments with new practices and technologies, social movements reshuffling social norms and priorities, as well as external shocks that radically and unexpectedly dislodge established forms of action.[iv] Could the covid-19 crisis therefore constitute an external shock for academic flying with the potential to change our practices on the long term?

Experiences with videoconferencing during covid-19

In August and September 2020, we conducted a survey among employees of the University of Graz concerning business travel and potential ways to reduce emissions from air travel. Part of the survey addressed experiences that respondents have made with travel restrictions during the covid-19 pandemic. Our results suggest that experiences with video- and teleconferencing (VC) have been largely positive and that significant learning effects have taken place. Out of 279 respondents, 130 people (46.6 %) stated that the suspension of business travel and the stronger reliance on VC has increased their willingness to use these technologies instead of a business trip. The same number of respondents report no change, while only 19 (6.8 %) respondents report a reduced willingness for employing VC (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Nevertheless, online meetings cannot substitute all aspects of face-to-face encounters. As Storme and colleagues (2017) have noted, VC can more easily be employed within established networks such as working group meetings.[v] Large conferences that facilitate encounters of people previously unknown to each other remain more challenging to reproduce in a virtual environment. Indeed, several of our respondents also made comments along these lines in our survey.
Furthermore, when asked about the possibility to reduce their business air travel in the future, a higher number of respondents saw the potential to reduce their air travel through a shift to ground based travel than by substituting trips through the use of VC. A remarkable 75.8 % of respondents are in principle prepared to reduce their future air travel by a medium or high degree by choosing other means of transport for journeys under 1,000 km. 45 % of respondents see a high reduction potential here. By contrast, 63.3 % of respondents are prepared to reduce their future air travel by substituting physical travel with online meetings, 25.7 % of respondents to a high degree (see also Figure 2)[vi]. While still impressive, these numbers point to some reservations concerning the potentials of VC as a replacement for corporeal travel.

Figure 2

A window of opportunity that needs to be exploited

Taken together, this suggests that the covid-19 pandemic, for all its lamentable consequences, creates a window of opportunity for pushing VC as an alternative to air travel in academia. Nevertheless, learning processes and the increased preparedness to use these technologies need to be met with appropriate support, so that this willingness is translated into actual behaviour change. This can include improving the VC-infrastructure at universities, increased training and technical support as well as the provision of online participation options by event organisers. Furthermore, for a more extensive reduction of academic air travel, the reduction potential of a modal shift also needs to be exploited by promoting ground-based travel and limiting academic flying (see e.g. this blogpost for possible measures).

While the covid-19 rupture in itself will not solve our travel emission problem in academia, the combination of this crisis with a growing climate movement and comprehensive measures taken by universities carry the potential to escape carbon lock-in of frequent flying.

Acknowledgement: This blogpost was written in collaboration with Annina Thaller. The underlying research is conducted jointly with Annina Thaller and Prof. Alfred Posch.

[i] Withmarsh, L., Capstick, S., Moore, I., Köhler, J., Le Quéré, C (2020). Use of aviation by climate change researchers: Structural influences, personal attitudes, and information provision. Global Environmental Change, 65, pp. 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2020.102184

[ii] Seto, K.C., Davis, S.J., Mitchell, R.B., Stokes, E.C., Unruh, G., Ürge-Vorsatz, D. (2016). Carbon Lock-In: Types, Causes and Policy Implications. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 41, pp. 19.1 – 19.28.  
Unruh, G. (2000). Understanding carbon lock-in. Energy Policy, 28, pp. 817-830.

[iii] Gärdebo, J., Nilsson, D., Soldal, K. (2017). The Travelling Scientist: Reflections on Aviated Knowledge Production in the Anthropocene. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, 5(1), pp. 71-99. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5250/resilience.5.1.0071

Hopkins, D., Higham, J., Tapp, S., Duncan, T. (2016). Academic mobility in the Anthropocene era: a comparative study of university policy at three New Zealand institutions. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 24(3), pp. 376-397. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2015.1071383

Hoyer, K.G., Naess, P. (2010). Conference Tourism: A Problem for the Environment, as well as for Research? Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9(6), pp. 451-470. https://doi.org/10.1080/09669580108667414

[iv] Geels, F.W., Sovacool, B.K., Schwanen, T., Sorrell, S. (2017). The Socio-Technical Dynamics

of Low-Carbon Transitions. Joule, 1, pp.  463-479. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joule.2017.09.018

Kent, J., Dowling, R., Maalsen, S. (2017). Catalysts for transport transitions: Bridging the gap between disruptions and change. Journal of Transport Geography, 60, pp. 200-207.

Unruh, G. (2002). Escaping carbon lock-in. Energy Policy (30), pp. 317-325.

[v] Storme, T., Falconbridge J.R., Beaverstock, J.V., Derudder, B.,Witlox F. (2017). Mobility and Professional Networks in Academia: An Exploration of the Obligations of Presence. Mobilities, 12(3), pp. 405-424. https://doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2015.1116884

[vi] To this question there are 338 respondents – more than above, as only respondents affected by covid-19 travel restrictions were asked about their change in willingness to use VC instead of business trips.