Academic Carbon Footprints

by Mary Langsdale

As part of our annual criteria, each member of the Sustainability Champions for the Department of Geography was asked by King’s Sustainability team to calculate our carbon footprint. I’m someone who cycles daily, doesn’t own a car, tries to eat a meat-free diet and lives in a shared house with electricity provided by a renewable energy provider. I have to admit, I was expecting my carbon footprint to be fairly small (and even to feel a bit smug). However, when I calculated it using the WWF carbon footprint calculator, I was shocked to discover that I was using 216% of my share (with 100% the average for each UK citizen to meet the UK’s 2020 emissions reduction targets). Of my share, 86% was from travel contributions, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The breakdown of my carbon footprint, calculated using the WWF carbon footprint calculator

The only flights I had taken had been for research-related reasons. So far in my PhD – which researches climate science – I’ve taken multiple flights to China, the US and several European cities. While all of this directly contributed to my PhD and development as an academic, this means that I am responsible for 11 tonnes of c arbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from my flights alone – equal to the amount of carbon sequestered by over 20,000 UK forest trees in one year to correct for this according to the Forestry Commission.

Flying is the single most climate-polluting activity an ordinary person can do: someone flying from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions as the average person in the EU does by heating their home for a whole year. In 2010, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from aviation accounted for at least 2.5% of all CO2 emissions (Lee, Lim, and Owen, 2013; Aschwanden, 2015). However, this global estimate does not take into account the impact due to the release of emissions at high altitudes, which can influence climate change through ‘radiative forcing’. Studies suggest that radiative forcing can double or even triple the impact flying has on climate change, resulting in a revised estimate that aviation is responsible for 5% of global anthropogenic climate change impacts (Lee et al., 2009; Jones and Kammen, 2011; Van Renssen, 2012).

Unfortunately, my flight habits are typical of many academics, who typically are expected to attend conferences and meetings internationally – if you are also a geographer, you’re required to travel to conduct fieldwork as well. Unless we see some major technical breakthroughs, this means that we are directly contributing to climate change – even us climate scientists.

As Sustainability Champions, one of the targets that we set ourselves was to reduce the carbon impact from business travel within the Department. The first step was to try to understand just how large this impact was: exactly how many flights are we taking? What was the environmental impact of these flights? What were the lengths of these flights? Would people have been able to use alternative means of transport with lower emissions?

To answer these questions, we conducted a travel audit for March 2017 – March 2018, using data from all travel booked through the recommended travel provider, as well as flight data from the undergraduate field trips to Spain and India. Note that this didn’t include all flights taken by members of the Department as: (i) many students and staff who travel on King’s business book their own travel for convenience and this data was not available to us as it is not centrally recorded; and (ii) data was not available for all the undergraduate field trips. CO2 emissions were calculated using the flight emissions calculator provided by ClimateCare, assuming no offsetting was made by participants when booking flights.

Figure 2. Number of return journeys and total carbon dioxide emissions (tonnes) for the Department of Geography for train, short-haul flights, medium-haul flights and long-haul-flights in 2017-18.

The results – even without the missing data – showed that the Department had a significant CO2 contribution from business travel in this period. Members of the Department travelled nearly 600,000 miles on planes (equivalent to going to the moon and halfway back!). This was equivalent to over 700 tonnes of CO2 – or in other words, equivalent to the CO2 sequestered by over 1 million UK forest trees in one year. By breaking down the flights into distances (short-haul – up to 750 miles; medium haul – 750 to 2500 miles; long-haul – 2500+ miles), it emerged that the majority of the journeys audited were long-haul flights and that these were the primary cause of the emissions, totalling 53% of the number of journeys and 87% of the CO2 emissions (see Figure 2). To truly estimate the carbon impact from our departmental business travel, we would need to look at the full records of all the business travel by any mode of transport.

Our next target is to look at how we might reduce this impact – whether through an offsetting scheme or other approaches, given the bad reputation offsetting has received over the years. We also want to consider how much alternative modes of transport would have reduced this impact.

In the meantime, here are five things you can do to become aware of and reduce your carbon impact:

  1. Calculate your carbon footprint through the WWF carbon footprint calculator or a similar website.
  2. Use tele/videoconferencing as much as possible for remote meetings.
  3. If you must travel, research alternative methods of travelling to flying. Changing your flight to a train journey can reduce your emissions by up to 90% and thanks to Europe’s high-speed train, you can travel from London to Vienna for the European Geosciences Union (EGU), for example, in a single day now – emitting just 35 kg of CO2 compared to the 260kg you might if you were flying. Eco Passenger has a resource to help you plan your journey and compare the environmental impacts.
  4. If taking flights is the only option available, consider offsetting flights if you can to reduce your impact. There are lots of different offsetting schemes available – ranging from planting trees to community work – so take your time to choose the right one.
  5. Consider signing this petition to show your support and join other academics who are trying to reduce their environmental impact.

To find out more about King’s Sustainability, visit their website.