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David Nilsson: Why the science community needs to talk about travelling

“Are you expected to always ride a bicycle just because you’re working with environmental issues?” asked my colleague over his morning cup of coffee. A recent conversation with another colleague had left him slightly uncomfortable; was it inappropriate for him to use a motorbike for commuting instead of the more environmentally friendly bicycle? “But I’m not very fond of biking…” he lamented, wistfully sipping his coffee. “Well, biking is good” another colleague broke in, “but aren’t our conference trips a bigger polluter anyway?”

What started as a small coffee table conversation triggered a wider debate at our division at KTH. Many of us focus our research on global sustainability and development. Climate change and the unsustainable cultures of ‘the anthropocene’ increasingly attract our attention, especially with the launch of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory in 2012. We have extensive collaboration with other universities and crisscross the globe partaking in conferences, seminars, exhibitions, lecture series and so on. Being genuinely concerned with setting humanity on a more sustainable path, we wish to secure a long healthy life of planet Earth and its co-travellers in space.  But in doing so, are we not at the same time making the problems worse? We all know that travelling by aircraft technology emits a lot of greenhouse gases. Moreover, flying symbolises the modern unsustainable lifestyle that we say needs to change. Is there incoherence in our reasoning? Is that even a problem? These questions slowly started nagging us.

Photo: Johan Gärdebo

 But first we needed to find out how much we travel and what emissions it leads to. With some help from the travel agency and the central environmental management function, KTH Sustainability, we looked into our travelling for 2013. To get figures specifically for our division we had to retrieve data from the KTH travel database and enter each trip manually into an emission calculator. The calculator chosen, from International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), is the standard calculator used by the United Nations, KTH and many flight carriers.

In 2013 we had made 56 international flights, corresponding to a direct emission of 25 tonnes of CO2. Some calculators also include the Radiative Forcing Index (RFI) to capture the warming effect due to other long-lived greenhouse gases. Using the RFI emission calculator from Atmosfair (a carbon offset scheme) generated the total emission of 64 tonnes of CO2 equivalents. But RFI has been considered an uncertain measure of the effect from aviation and should be used with care.

But is this a lot, or just a little? What does 25 – or 64 – tonnes of greenhouse gases mean anyway? To put this in perspective we can look at per capita figures. According to the latest IPCC report the global emissions in 2010 stood at an average of 7 tonnes CO2 equivalents per capita. The emissions are unevenly distributed across the globe. The average for OECD countries is 15 tonnes per cap/year while Africa and Asia countries contribute around 5 tonnes per person. The average GHG emission for Sweden was just over 6 tonnes per capita in 2012. Our travelling at the division equals between 1 and 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per employee, which in this perspective cannot be seen as insignificant. Furthermore, IPCC fifth Assessment Report tells us that keeping global warming below 2 degrees most likely requires a reduction to something like 2 tonnes per capita by the year 2100. Clearly, coming generations of scientists will have to find other ways of transporting themselves and their knowledge. These are the facts. But what are the implications and what can be done about it?

Train approaching. Photo: David Nilsson

The climate science community – and other communities dealing with global sustainability –faces a serious dilemma, potentially affecting our ability to take a lead in sustainable transformation. However, I believe that the incentives and logics built into our work and academic life propagates against a drastic reduction of our international travelling in the short term. But we need to look into our options. Maybe we can set targets to reduce our emissions through Carbon Budgeting. Maybe we can take the train more often. Maybe we should look for more effective ICT solutions for our international collaboration, or plan and structure our collaboration differently. In any case, we need to start talking.

And that’s what The Travelling Scientist is about. Please join us!

10 thoughts on “David Nilsson: Why the science community needs to talk about travelling”

  1. Interesting, why not use video-conferences more often. I did some work for ODI recently and they quickly suggested that I should join a workshop in Dar. But I did not see the point in travelling for 2days and spend 3 hours in à workshop. I suggested a Skype-fall and it worked excellent.

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  2. I really like this initiative. Pondered going to Denmark from Eindhoven for a conference by train, but in the end I just found it too complicated and time-consuming with extremely uncomfortable transfers (and more expensive than flying but I could live with that, even if it is a bit ridiculous). Why is it not more simple to do continental train travelling?! Well, partly of course because we deal with different nationally oriented railway companies, but should that really hinder coordination in these times?

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  3. Jörgen and Martin,
    These are brief but great comments. Mind expanding them into diary entries? Ca 500-800 words + pics would do well, just enough space to elaborate and reflect on travelling. Not sure how other people write their diaries, but I prefer making it personal =)


  4. Hi Daniel, Jörgen, Johan and Martin,

    Jag blev väldigt glad när jag snubblade över denna sida, länkad från FB. Skönt att få dela mina egna funderingar tillsammans med andra med liknande tankar. Insikten blir så konkret och förändringen så nödvändig, när vi tittar oss i spegeln.

    Ser fram emot att fortsätta diskutera denna fråga och hitta konkreta strategier som förändrar.

    MVH Martin

  5. David and Johan – a fine initiative!
    With a wife from Honduras, I find visiting her relatives not easily done by train. Now I wonder if there is a CO2 compensation scheme/site for air travel that can be recommended.

  6. Hi Petter. Thanks for your feedback! Sure, there are many places that we can’t reach by train, of course. For us living in Europe, Honduras is just one of them. And the train (once seen as the symbol for the “unnatural”) is not completely free from environmental negative effects.

    On carbon offsets, UNEP made a review some years back:
    One of the offset organisations UNEP recommended then was Atmosfair ( My personal experience of buying offsets through them has been good so far (Disclaimer: this is not an official opinion expressed by KTH). I’d be happy to hear about others’ recent experience and insight from the offset market.

  7. What a great iniative! Thanks to the ones who started it – if there is a discipline where a more sustainable way of conference travelling can be developed it should (or even must?) be the Environmental Humanities.

    Using videolink and CO2 off-sets can be good individual solutions, especially if there is no suitable alternative (as long as CO2 off-setting is not used in an inflational way, let’s not forget that the emissions will be created immediately while compensation needs longer time, not to speak about the efficiency which can be questioned).

    Just to add a collective and rather long-term perspective: why not coordinating and combining academic conferences more? Especially when there are strong connections between certain discipline hubs, institutions can organize annual and biannual conferences which could bring more scientists together for a longer time. Not just for a weekend but a whole week or even ten days? There could be shifting circles through which conferences would be organized at another place every (half) year. The programme would be richer, more diverse and extending the exchange between scholars and probably the public too. This would need substantial planning between a range of institutions but would certainly enhance the quality of work during these confernces. Plus it becomes a “special occassion” again to go abroad and meet colleagues and would cross the “normality” of modern every-day travelling.

  8. Great, and indeed a challenge for the academic community.

    A good article on this dilemma is :
    Karl Georg Høyer, ‘A Conference Tourist and His Confessions: An Essay on a Life with Conference Tourism, Aeromobility and Ecological Crisis’, Tourism and Hospitality Planning & Development 6, no. 1 (April 2009): 53–68

    Bottom line: the Norwegian conference tourist (read: academic travelling by plane to present her/his work) has a much worse GHG emissions performance than the average Norwegian due to, primarily, cross-continental traveling.

    From that perspective it is also worrisome that among my good friends staying in Europe for holidays is considered rather boring already. We fly the globe to spend a couple of days on the beach, which could be found much closer to home as well. At the same time, this also leads to uneasy environment vs. development discussions.

  9. Really nice to see this issue popping up over and over again. An expansive blog post by Kevin Anderson really dives into this issue as well. He took the leap to travel to Shanghai by train, and shares his experiences and conclusions.

    My own experience: my partner and I are planning a three week trip to South-America. We both have really wanted to make this ‘big trip’ for some years now and finally we are able to. I’m struggling with the trade-off between this ‘need’ that we’ve had for a long time and the inevitable impact it will have. For now I find false peace in the thought it’s something of a life-project, not something we do on a whim, and maybe will not ever do again. That’s putting my head in the sand though. How did this become a goal for us anyway?

  10. Great comments, thanks! I think we can agree that we’d like to minimize the air travelling altogether… But a crtitcal question is; how is a reduced mobility for researchers going to impact on 1) the quality of research and 2) productivity of scientific community.
    Some interaction we can replace with video conferences, like Jörgen suggests above. And I particularly like Michael’s idea to coordinate better to make sure you get most out of the travelling and not just dash across the globe for shorter trips. That would add a whole new dimension (and potentially increase quality) to international travelling.
    But doesn’t it all boil down incentives? What incentives do we have in the research community to reduce GHG? Not many… Have you heard of a University with Carbon Budgeting?

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