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Canada Academics pledge to fly less due to environmental impact of air travel

Jetting off to do research and attend conferences has become ingrained in the culture of academia. It’s also a mark of status. Speaking in glamorous capitals like London or Berlin expands their networks and burnishes their reputations.

But anxiety about the environmental impact of air travel has reached a tipping point, leading academics around the world to call for a rethink. Professors are already conscious that their research must withstand ethical scrutiny and flying presents a further challenge.

In modern postsecondary institutions, where warnings about the danger of climate change are commonplace, academics are wary of being accused of hypocrisy. They’re wrestling with the “flier’s dilemma": Do the personal benefits of air travel outweigh its cost to the climate?

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“Flying has been central to who I am and what I do,” said Jaymie Heilman, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Alberta.

“I owe a debt to flying. I got where I am because I flew so much.”

She learned Spanish by immersing herself in the language and culture of Central America. She flew to Peru and Guatemala for research, and when she was in graduate school in the United States, she flew regularly to Canada. But last summer, the smoke from forest fires was so bad in Edmonton that she and her family had to stay indoors. It made her re-examine her choices.

Prof. Heilman has joined a movement of academics who are pledging to fly less, particularly when it comes to attending conferences.

At Concordia University, the entire geography department recently adopted a flying-less policy. Professors there have committed to limit the number of flights they take and publish a record of all their air travel annually. They’ll endeavour to travel by rail or bus to any destination within 12 hours of Montreal, and decline some conference invitations, all with the aim of encouraging “a low carbon working culture."

Flying accounts for about 3 per cent of global emissions, and it’s mainly a habit of the world’s elite. Only 3 to 6 per cent of the world population flew last year, and 80 per cent of the world has never been on an airplane. But for most wealthy North Americans it’s typically among the top three or four things, along with eating meat, car travel and family size, that have the biggest climate impact.

By some estimates, the carbon cost of a Toronto-London round-trip flight are close to the equivalent of a year’s driving, although strict comparisons are difficult due to the many variables involved.

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A study at the University of British Columbia, led by geography PhD student Seth Wynes, found that the flying habits of UBC employees had almost as significant a carbon cost as the buildings on the Vancouver campus, which have been a major focus when it comes to green policies. UBC staff (not all of whom are academics) produced emissions roughly the equivalent of two-thirds to three quarters of the emissions created by heating and running the university, Mr. Wynes found. In the geography department, which has a very efficient building, business-related air travel created about 30 times more emissions than the building.

The study also found that about 10 per cent of the employees were responsible for half the emissions, and a majority of the emissions were due to academics attending conferences. In another study, Mr. Wynes found that there is a correlation between higher emissions and higher salary.

“University institutions ... reward us for flying. The more you fly, the more you are esteemed,” Prof. Heilman said.

“I do think it’s moral to fly for research, particularly at this moment where we need to understand other parts of the world and each other. But for keynotes, where you’re flying across the world, or even across the country to give a 20-minute talk, that’s just absurd to me.”

Prof. Heilman said she’ll limit herself to one flight a year from now on. Many of her colleagues are making a similar pledge. She said making the decision was easy, but discussing it, as she did in a recent post on a website for historians, was more difficult.

“I joked with some friends that I should subtitle the article ‘How to lose academic friends fast,’ ” she said, although the messages she received were mainly supportive.

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Ryan Katz-Rosene, president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada, has already flown once this year to attend a major conference in Vancouver, but he plans not to fly again until 2021. Not only is it an ethical choice, he says, but it’s also about credibility.

“If I want people to believe me when I say that this is the most urgent challenge of our time, I'm eroding my own credibility as a scholar if I then go and fly around the world,” he said.

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