“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.
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?
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!