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Flying Less Concordia encourages academics to reduce their carbon footprint

Members of the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment urge researchers to curb their travel habits beyond the COVID-19 pandemic
September 17, 2020
Image of the wing of a plane, with clouds in the background.
Sébastien Caquard: “The climate crisis is not going to go away on its own.” | Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

Flying is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in academia. Now a group from Concordia’s Department of Geography, Planning and Environment is urging researchers to review and curb their travel habits.

Flying Less Concordia’s stated policy is to encourage a low-carbon working culture, promote the health and productivity benefits of travelling less, and sensitize academics within the research community about how to act on climate change.

“For a long time, I’ve felt that there was something problematic about academics claiming that climate change was a serious issue while we kept flying around the world,” says Sébastien Caquard, associate professor of geography, planning and environment and co-founder of the project.

“Basically, we were sending this contradictory message — that climate change is a big issue, but not big enough to force us to give up our flying privileges.”

Having signed an earlier initiative launched by colleagues in the United States to reduce flying, Caquard and colleagues established a climate emergency committee to draft a flying reduction policy at the departmental level. From there, Flying Less Concordia was born.

“The flying less policy was unanimously adopted in June 2019 by the department and the reaction was extremely positive,” he says.

“Almost all our full-time faculty members released their academic flying activities in 2019 and 2020, which enabled us to measure our collective carbon footprint. Between 2019 and 2020, our estimated CO2 emissions due to academic flying dropped from 52 tonnes to 19 tonnes, a 64 per cent decrease. Of course, COVID-19 helped us reduce our flying activities. But even without COVID-19, our estimated CO2 emissions would have dropped from 52 to 30 tonnes in that time.”

‘It’s good timing for reconsidering our academic flying agendas’

Air travel accounts for about three per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But this figure is growing quickly and most of it is generated by a very small fraction of the world’s population, including academics.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in order to restrain global warming, the amount of cumulative anthropogenic CO2 emissions must be limited to avoid surpassing earth’s 1.5 degrees Celsius warming threshold. For this reason, individuals should aim for a total lifestyle carbon footprint of 2.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2030.

“The climate crisis is not going to go away on its own. And now is a good time to promote flying less because there is a clear momentum that was created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Caquard.

Since the health crisis emerged in the spring, many in-person conferences have been re-scheduled as online only, for instance. “While we’ve all experienced the limits of intense videoconferencing in the last few months, we have also been able to appreciate how much we can achieve working remotely,” he says.

“We have been able to change our travelling behaviours and we are starting to understand some of the benefits. It’s good timing for reconsidering our academic flying agendas.”

Looking toward the future, the group is encouraging people to sign a flying less pledge to reduce academic air travel and prioritize travel-free meetings.

Collective action to reduce energy consumption

Evidence shows that new technologies and policies alone won’t reduce flying emissions, as their development pace has been surpassed by an outstanding global demand for air travel.

And so a collective behavioural reckoning is required.

“Even after this pandemic, the industry is predicted to continue its advancement without major setbacks,” says Luz Gomez-Vallejo, a master’s student in environmental assessment and designer of the Flying Less Concordia website.

“Hence the need to promote a flying-less culture. Universities and academics should become agents of change by setting an example of more sustainable lifestyles and implementing alternative options to flying.”

Caquard reports that the next step will be to develop a university-wide policy to support the initiative.

He suggests Concordia could then join a small group of universities around the world that have implemented similar policies, including the University of British Columbia, ETH Zurich, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Lund University in Sweden and the University of Maryland.

“It is clear that academics will fly again soon for legitimate reasons, for example, fieldwork,” Caquard says. “But we hope that COVID will have served as a catalyst to reduce academic flying, by making us aware of the sometimes frivolous — and often counterproductive — aspects of our trips.”

Find out more about the
Flying Less Concordia initiative.



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