Universities can make changes in how we subsidize travel by air

The Tufts Institute for the Environment (TIE) this month revised its travel grants program to encourage greater thoughtfulness about the climate change impact of travel by students and faculty for academic conferences on environmental issues.

The new guidelines require students and faculty applying for travel grants to “provide an explanation of how their travel request maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.” It continues:

Given that aviation is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, it is advantageous to travel using modes other than aviation when feasible; and, when aviation is essential, to use direct flights, stay for a longer time period on a single trip, and accomplish more and more diverse activities on each trip. Short travel will still be supported, but applicants who propose environmentally responsible travel plans will be favored.

Even more concretely, one of the program’s three evaluation criteria now states that a grant proposal will be evaluated based on whether it “maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.”

You have probably guessed that I proposed this change and drafted the language TIE adopted. If I were king of my university, rather than a mere faculty member, I would institute a yet stronger policy, immediately ending all subsidies for travel by air. I feel impatient with the pace of change for universities, including even my own, which has a strong reputation for environmental leadership. Yet, at a time when our national politics has collapsed into dysfunction, it nonetheless pleases me that TIE adopted this modest policy.

Previously, the travel grants program’s poster — no longer in use! — illustrated the exact wrong way for environmental organizations to think about travel, complete with clip art of an airplane.


Now, Tufts University is doing better than that.

Accept this challenge: what similar changes can you promote at your university?

This #flyingless initiative is not just about personal austerity. It is about challenging universities to lead the way in modeling a better way of doing things. In small steps, and then soon dramatically bigger steps, let’s keep moving forward together.