By Louise Marie Busck Lumholt, Johanna Coenen, Perrine Laroche, Nicolas Roux, Kathrin Trommler

Travel-related emissions and the proportion of academia’s carbon-footprint has become a debated issue, especially among researchers working on sustainability. While some “walk the talk” and fly less individually, others urge for stronger collective government action.

Our European Innovative Training Network (ITN) COUPLED aims to solve sustainability challenges for land use. We are fifteen doctoral fellows supported by a network of supervisors and partners based at various universities, companies, public institutions, and NGOs. Our activities include PhD projects, internships, and training courses.

Many of us find ourselves in a dilemma. Due to our disciplines within sustainability science, and generally increasing international awareness, we know very well about the causes and effects of climate change. While we know that carbon emissions from flights are a significant factor, we travel around the world to attend conferences, do research visits and conduct fieldwork. Moreover, investigating telecoupling research topics, such as the long-distance flows of consumer goods, often takes us on long-distance journeys, associated with a substantial carbon footprint.

Figure 1: CO2 emissions from COUPLED related trips, survey answered by 25 COUPLED members, for a total of 332 trips, representing 78.1 tonnes of CO2 emissions for COUPLED related travelling from January 2018 to October 2019

We would like to share some reflections on these challenges and opportunities for responsible travel in academia, which emerged during a webinar in January this year organised by the COUPLED fellows.

Stay grounded

Our guest speaker Michaela Leitner from the Stay Grounded network outlined the need to shift towards environmentally sound transport systems and highlighted the illusion of technological fixes and biofuels. In particular, she argued that offsetting is a false solution to reduce emissions. Buying carbon credits from reforestation or hydropower projects is claimed to lead to emission savings. Yet, some of these measures have been shown to not deliver real emission reductions (Öko-Institut 2016), and often lead to local conflicts or land grabbing as well as biodiversity losses (Spash 2015, Stay Grounded 2017). On the other hand, at a time where deforestation is still a major issue, properly managed reforestation projects are urgently needed anyways, independently from the amount of carbon emitted by other sectors as aviation. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the conservation and restoration of natural ecosystems must occur at the same time. One can not be considered as compensation for not doing the other.

The dilemma of young researchers

European Innovative Training Networks (ITNs) like COUPLED is designed to support European youth mobility. To be eligible in the first place, fellows are required to work in a country where they have not been living for the past four years. To do training events and secondments at the internationally spread partner organisations during their employment time is at the core of the training networks. On top of that, long-distance flights to fieldwork destinations add up to the professional carbon budget of the young researchers and their supervisors. To present our research findings, we travel to conferences relevant to our research fields. This way, academics and practitioners in the ITN-network connect and interact, despite the distance that separate institutions from different countries.

Mobility can boost an academic career at an early stage. It does not only offer international experiences, but also gives access to scientific networks, broadens and sensitizes our minds, and allows building the ties that may hold the quality of our research, and our future careers. Furthermore, regular visits at the partner institutions contribute to tighten our COUPLED network and foster mutual support among PhD fellows.

Yet, enhancing the internationalization of early-stage researchers comes at an environmental price. High mobility implies work-related but also personal travelling emissions. This dilemma is particularly strong in sustainability research, where researchers are meant to explore options for correcting the mechanisms causing environmental degradation, while to some extent, they contribute to this degradation through the considerable per capita emissions linked to mobility. What we aim for is great, but is the cost worth it? A balance needs to be found to drastically reduce emissions from ITNs while ensuring the benefits of mobility.

What can we do to reduce our travel emissions?

The first question to ask is whether the travel can be avoided. For example, it may not be necessary to attend three, four or even more conferences per year, but quite possible to reduce this number to a few key events. In academia, the debate on reducing travel-related emissions often centres around the challenge of ‘staying grounded’ without compromising the quality of research. There is, however, so far no evidence that research quality is positively correlated with travel frequency (Wynes et al. 2019). Innovative research projects like ITNs should pro-actively strive to make changes from within by creating an academic culture with more careful and responsible planning of research activities and critical self-reflection on their impact. One way to start is by pooling research activities and have meetings and collective arrangements of longer duration. Besides saving time and resources at all levels, these types of meetings have proved to be the most socially and professionally fulfilling in COUPLED.

Moreover, the potential of virtual meetings and online conference participation is still not fully realised, and the use of innovative formats is not broadly encouraged. Regular Skype calls and working together remotely on cloud-based documents have as well proved efficient for in-between collaborations, and to maintain the network spirit. We encourage the EU to further invest in designing tools and infrastructure that facilitates excellent joint research at a distance. These mediums may, however, only be effective in reducing emissions if they replace rather than complement travelling.

In the case that work-related travel, through sound and careful assessment, is considered necessary, we should minimize our environmental footprint by considering all available modes of transportation. In general, plane travel causes the highest CO2 emissions, followed by car, bus, and train. We believe that individual initiative is necessary and must be strengthened by structural change. Therefore, as part of the preparation for the Responsible Travel Webinar, we asked members of COUPLED to think of how easy it would have been to take a less CO2 intensive transportation mode for their trip, such as taking the train instead of flying. Figure 2 shows that only a few respondents considered that it would have been easy to replace their flight with a eco-friendlier alternative.

Figure 2: Routes taken by plane, and opinion about the ease of opting for a less CO2 intensive alternative.

The conference in Bern in April 2019, has been reached by most of the participants by train, in contrast with other events of the project. This has probably to do with the central location of this conference, given the distribution of COUPLED members in Europe. This is an indicator that the location of the meeting as well plays a central role in facilitating the uptake of low carbon transportation modes (Figure 2).

Figure 3: Transportation mode for different trip purposes

A key argument for taking the flight rather than more eco-friendly modes of transportation is the issue of time constraints. We argue that this issue is linked to a question of work culture in academia, where there is a tendency to focus on efficiency from the perspective of fast results. However, a long train ride does not have to imply lower efficiency as it is a mode of transportation allowing for better opportunities than an airplane to e.g. prepare for a conference or conduct meetings. Moreover, trains offer easy access, unlimited luggage, no waiting times, and comfortable seating.

Timewise, we often unfairly compare train rides with flights based on the schedule reported on our tickets. A one-hour flight does not take one hour. Getting to the airport in good time to register your luggage and pass a security check and getting your luggage out and reach city centres by public transportation or taxi, actually lengthens the plane journey.

Examples from recent initiatives

An example from Germany shows that expressing serious concerns regarding short-haul business flights can lead to considerable changes. The initiative Scientists for Future (#unter 1000) has chosen the self-regulation approach to voluntarily refrain from business flights below 1000 km to set an example for climate protection. Institutions like the University of Potsdam or Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development even ban short-haul flights under 1000 km when the destination can be reached by train within a reasonable number of hours. Also, Ghent University in Belgium no longer reimburses plane travels to any location within a six-hour bus or train ride. Several other universities such as Arizona State University, University of California or Yale University have implemented internal carbon pricing policies. Nevertheless, although banning short-haul flights is symbolically important because of the relative ease of replacing them by train or other transportation modes, their share in total emissions remains limited compared to just a few long-haul flights (Figure 4). Therefore, despite their importance for research and intercontinental cooperation, the regulation of long-haul flights deserves attention in such initiatives to sincerely and rapidly reduce the absolute amount of emissions in academia. For example, fostering collaboration and data sharing with partner institutions close to fieldwork venues could be an option to avoid long-haul flights.

Figure 4: Travel emissions from COUPLED by distance and transportation mode

Implementing a Carbon Budget for ITNs?

We have seen earlier that just replacing those flights that are considered “short and easy to replace” may not yield significant reductions in CO2 emissions. It is therefore crucial that individual endeavour is sustained by structural change and regulation. An effective option would be the implementation of a binding Carbon budget at the project level.

In order to have a 66% chance to limit global warming to 1.5 °C, we can only emit globally another 420 Billion tonnes of CO2 (from 2018 onwards) (IPCC 1.5° special report). Envisioned emission pathways to stay within this global Carbon budget imply cutting global greenhouse gas emissions by more than half by 2030 (ca. 20 Billion tonnes per year), reaching global carbon neutrality by 2050, and absorbing CO2 through nature-based solutions as afforestation or through capture and storage technologies.

But how to share this global carbon budget? The question of climate justice is indeed as important as the total emissions, especially when it comes to flying. Dividing emissions by population could give an idea of what a fair distribution looks like. Considering the historical responsibilities of industrialized countries in carbon emissions, and rights for development could justify a larger share of this budget to developing economies. If all 7.7 billion people were to use the same share of the current global CO2 emissions, each of us could use 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. Assuming one-third of it should be used for public expenditure6, and one third for personal consumption as food and housing, we would remain with 1.8 tonnes per person for work-related emissions. By 2030, work-related emissions would have to decrease to 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per year (accounting for population growth) and eventually shrink to zero by 2050.

In 2019, the average emissions of COUPLED members were 2.86 tonnes of CO2 per person, which contrasts with the estimated fair carbon budget of 1.8 tonnes and the objective of 0.8 tonnes of CO2 per person and per year by 2030. The introduction of a binding carbon budget has therefore been discussed as an option for steering large research projects like COUPLED towards the Paris agreement. Restricting carbon emissions to 0.8 tonnes per fellow per year would still offer 36 tonnes of CO2 which could be shared among 15 fully employed doctoral fellows and used strategically over the three years of employment. Considering the current flight emissions level, this would roughly allow for 12 roundtrip long-haul flights over the entire period. This project’s carbon budget could be pooled and distributed among the researchers according to their research needs, to still enable necessary trips (e.g. fieldwork). The total carbon budget of an ITN like COUPLED would also need to account for the journeys undertaken by supervisors, advisors, and other board members.

Despite some practical challenges, such as the definition of emission factors, or the choice of an emission pathway and distribution scheme, the implementation of such a carbon budget may not add much administrative workload for beneficiaries, as travels are anyway monitored by institutions for monetary reimbursement. Finally, funding organisations such as the European Union could prescribe a binding carbon budget for the entire period of the project, next to monetary budgets.

In short

To sum up, several options are already implementable to facilitate responsible travel behaviour, but research institutions need to incorporate them into the core functioning of their projects. Innovative formats for online conferences and virtual meetings should be used in priority. While physical meetings are valuable for projects involving institutions spread in several countries/continents (e.g. choose more centrally located conference venues), sensible planning has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of project events.  Rules applied to the reimbursement of travels should be changed towards carbon-pricing or banning short-haul flights. Such initiatives from academia should not replace a push to national governments to implement or raise aviation taxes to better mitigate the environmental costs of flight emissions, and to include emissions from aviation into international agreements, as they are not yet explicitly covered by the Paris agreement.


The discussion of „travel less” will remain with COUPLED until the end of our exciting training programme. Stay with us and follow our activities. We will develop a decision tree to help you make sensitive travel decisions. We will come up with a slightly different perspective from countries of the Global South. And we will further share with you our steps in the struggle to reduce emissions while doing our research.

The authors

Louise Marie Busck Lumholt

Johanna Coenen

Perrine Laroche

Nicolas Roux

Kathrin Trommler

1 Comment

  1. Very nice and thoughtful article: congrats from a not that young scientist who has been trying to reduce his professional carbon footprint for 10 years … I have this dream of a binding Carbon budget at the project level for quite a while now 🙂 Let’s keep pushing!

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