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A practical guide to academic air travel reduction

Perhaps this is you?

  • You are an academic and an active member of your international scientific community. 
  • You are worried about climate change, especially its impact on future generations.
  • You realize that for academics to significantly impact the climate with a short-term effect, the only option they have is to reduce flying. At the same time, you worry about sustaining your international academic community.
  • Your colleagues are still in denial about needing to change academic travel habits and argue someone/something else being worse absolves their responsibilities.
  • Your university tells you to reduce travel emissions, but neither provides impactful guidelines nor significant incentives.

So what can you do if you are a researcher at KTH?

I suggest you start small and choose low-hanging fruits. Try out solutions and see what works for you. Below are five ideas.

1. Understand your impact.

Check and keep in mind that 2 ton CO2e is the annual allowable non-renewable emission per person if we want to keep global warming < 1.5 C.

2. Flying from Copenhagen airport instead of Arlanda reduces CO2e emissions with 0.2 ton.

Flights from Stockholm to Western Europe (London, Brussels, Zurich, Madrid) typically fly over Copenhagen. The train from Stockholm to Copenhagen takes only four hours longer than the one to Arlanda airport. Starting your flight from Copenhagen reduces CO2e emissions with 0.2 ton on a return trip.

3. High-speed trains are comfortable and undisturbed working spaces.

Compared to most regular trains throughout Europe, high-speed trains are comfortable and provide free wifi, electricity and a restaurant wagon. Travel becomes not a waste of time – rather an opportunity for undisturbed work! Examples of “smooth” work trips I made using Interrail tickets:

Stockholm-Zurich: Stockholm-Gothenburg by X2000 (3 h); Gothenburg-Kiel by night ferry (15 h); Kiel-Zurich by ICE (7 h).

Stockholm-Barcelona: Stockholm-Copenhagen by X2000 (4.5 h); Copenhagen-Brussels by flight (1.5 h); Brussels-Barcelona by TGV (9 h).

4. Travel while you sleep.

From a KTH perspective today, consider SJ sleeper trains Stockholm-Copenhagen, Stockholm-Northern Sweden or the NightJets between Hamburg-Switzerland and Hamburg-Austria as part of your travel. Plans are in the making for sleeper trains Stockholm-Hamburg and Malmö-Köln. The ferry Gothenburg-Kiel is also worth considering, although typically more polluting than the train.

5. Nurse your carbon investment.

Your travel is an investment with the resources of future generations. If you choose to invest, ensure a substantial return! Don't do the work you could have done home (no email or web surfing during conference sessions). Combine multiple visits while at your destination. Consider as a rule of thumb to only fly if per 0.1 ton of CO2e you emit, you spend one efficient workday at your destination. I.e., only fly to Brussels (0.4 ton CO2e) if you plan to work there for four days effectively; only fly to California (3 ton CO2e) if you plan to work there for at least one month effectively.

So what can you do if you are in charge in the KTH line organization?

  • Take your role as a state employee and public intellectual. 
  • Forbid flying within Sweden if less polluting alternatives are available.
  • Enforce air travel to Western Europe via Copenhagen as the starting air hub.
  • Only allow travel where the stay abroad lasts at least one day per 0.1 ton CO2e travel emission.
  • Do not rely on others in the organization to take these decisions. You are in charge!