For scientists and climate activists who think about transportation and the climate emergency, the graphics produced by Barry Saxifrage for his website Visual Carbon and for the National Observer are a delight.
One of my favorites for many years has been his comparison of greenhouse gas emissions per mile (or per km) for different transportation modes. Late last year, I asked Barry about train estimates in particular, because Amtrak is electrified in the northeast where most Amtrak trips take place, while the carrier uses diesel on long-distance routes elsewhere. Kindly, Barry has revised his graphic to include this distinction, while also updating the numbers. Truly committed to climate action, he freely shared the updated charts this week.
Let me briefly list some of the unique features for readers who study this issue closely: (1) he clearly shows the heavy emissions from flying, (2) he includes a factor for non-CO2 impact of flying (in red circles), but he also provides alternate estimates for readers who prefer to exclude this radiative forcing factor for consistent comparison across modes (in clear circles), (3) he shows emissions per mile on the ruler at bottom or alternatively miles per ton of emissions on the ruler at top, (4) he provides green, yellow, and red color coding to make it easy to see which modes are most harmful, (5) he shows how automobile emissions per passenger mile depend on the number of passengers, which is a common source of confusion in comparisons across modes, (6) he has tiers for fossil fuel vehicles and electric vehicles, which focuses our attention on the critical climate action strategies of rapid electrification and rapid greening of the electric grid, (7) most importantly for this field of science communication, he has a thorough data footnote.
Due to data limitations, Barry had to exclude embedded emissions for vehicle production, but he applied this approach consistently across modes.
The chart helps for understanding a major theme of our #flyingless initiative:
For institutions and individuals, an initiative to reduce flying will have two important effects: (1) it will reduce miles traveled and (2) it will reduce emissions per mile with almost all mode substitutions.
You can download the full graphic in miles and kilometers formats. I hope this graphic is widely shared on social media when there is a muddled discussion of how flying compares to other modes of transportation.
To see Part 1 of the FlyingLess end-of-the-year update for 2019, go here.
At the end of December, Robert Del Naja (aka 3D), a singer with Massive Attack, told the BBC that the popular English music group wants to avoid flying. In 2019, the band actively supported Extinction Rebellion. “[As musicians] we have enjoyed a high-carbon lifestyle,” Del Naja told the BBC’s Radio 4. “The challenge now is to not only make personal sacrifices, but to insist on the systemic change that’s needed. Business as usual is over.” This follows on the heels of an announcement in November by another prominent British rock band, Coldplay, that it will stop touring until they figure out how to make their concerts carbon neutral. “The hardest thing is the flying side of things,” said one of the band members.
What make addressing such emissions all the more necessary is that, in the words of Barry Saxifrage, a climate reporter with Canada’s National Observer, the world’s aviation industry “has started burning jet fuel like there is no tomorrow. Its climate pollution is rocketing upward.” Based on data from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Saxifrage (who gave up flying more than a decade ago due to its impact on the climate system) finds that the aviation industry’s co2 emissions are presently rising four times faster than they did in the 1990-2010 period.
Goings-on within academia and beyond (continued from Part 1)
Ghent University in Belgium is playing a leading role in advancing sustainable travel by reducing flying by its personnel. Academic travel for professional purposes (what the institution characterizes as “business trips”), much of it by plane, makes up 15 percent of the university’s total co2 emissions. As such, Ghent has established a “sustainable travel policy” that includes a “decision tree” to reduce air travel—particularly to cities within 6-8 hours of travel by train from Ghent. A university-based activist group, De Groene Locomotief (The Green Locomotive), has worked over the years to bring about these changes. It has also actively encouraged people to sign the FlyingLess petition!
The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), a section of the (U.S.) American Anthropological Association (AAA), put together a roundtable for the recent joint-annual meeting of the AAA and the Canadian Anthropology Society (also known as CASCA) in Vancouver. The meeting’s theme was “Changing Climates: Struggle, Collaboration, and Justice.”
Anthropologist Jason Hickel has written that anthropologists have “an ethical obligation to reconsider how we approach our work. Perhaps this means shifting from the present culture of hit-and-run research (frequent trips for short stays) to ‘slow fieldwork’: reducing the frequency of visits, extending their duration, travelling overland wherever possible and developing research partnerships with anthropologists who live closer to our field [sites]. In addition to reducing emissions,” he says, “these changes may well improve the quality of our research, making it more thoughtful, more robust and more inclusive.” However, he argues, “the real elephant in the room” for anthropologists are the professional meetings. Hickel notes the irony of thousands of anthropologists flying in for the 2018 AAA meeting in San Jose, California, when “the region was being torched by some of the most destructive wildfires in its history. Photographs emerged of smoke seeping into conference rooms, and of participants walking around in masks – poignant images of a climate dystopia that is already unfolding.”
Reflecting such concerns, the November 2019, the SCA roundtable in Vancouver explored alternative models for both the annual AAA meting and other professional anthropology gatherings. “Reimagining the Annual Meeting for an Era of Radical Climate Change” was comprised of two sections, one titled “Assessing the Conventional Conference,” the other “Emerging Alternatives.” The SCA has posted the presentations online—both those done at the actual meeting as well as video contributions from anthropologists not in attendance—and the discussions that followed.
In the run-up to the COP25 climate negotiations in Spain in December, #VirtualBlueCOP25, an online platform focusing on ocean and climate-related themes, had a series of virtual events. An initiative of Future Earth—a network of scientists, researchers, and innovators in sustainability—#VirtualBlueCOP25 included an event of the flyingless movement. The event included presentations by Kim Cobb of Georgia Tech (USA), Lisa Jacobson of Future Earth Sweden. Kim Nicholas of Lund University (Sweden) Isabel Seeger of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (Germany), and was followed by an illuminating discussion among the participants. A video of the event is below.
Recent academic articles, working papers, and essays
Researchers associated with the International Council on Clean Transportation have released a working paper that measures emissions from commercial aircraft in 2018. According to the findings, greenhouse gas emissions from commercial aviation are rapidly growing. At present levels of growth, emissions are expected to triple by 2050, by which time commercial aircraft could account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. Passenger aircraft comprised 38 million of the 39 million commercial flights in 2018, comprising 2.4 percent of global CO2 emissions from the use of fossil fuels—a 32 percent increase over a five-year period. This increase was 70 percent higher than that projected by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Flights emanating from the United States and its territories made up 24 percent of all commercial aviation emissions. Relatedly, flights associated with high-income countries, which have 16 percent of the world’s population, were responsible for 62 percent of related emissions. (See Brandon Graver, Kevin Zhang, and Dan Rutherford, “CO2 Emissions from Commercial Aviation, 2018,” Working Paper, The International Council on Clean Transportation, September 19, 2019.)
A study by a trio of researchers from the University of Iceland provides insight into flying practices. Focusing on local, domestic, and international travel habits of young adults (25-40 years of age) in the Reykjavik Capital Region, the researchers found that international travel for leisure purposes dominated the greenhouse gas emissions of the studied population. Responsibility for emissions was highly unequal with the top 20 percent responsible liable for 55 percent (responsibility was similarly unequal for local and domestic travel). Moreover, those with greater awareness about the climate crisis are more likely to have higher GHG emissions from flights abroad. Those who live in the center city, which is indicative of more cosmopolitan attitudes, are most likely to engage in leisure travel abroad. (See Michał Czepkiewicz, Áróra Árnadóttir and Jukka Heinonen, “Flights Dominate Travel Emissions of Young Urbanites,” Sustainability, Vol. 11, 6340, 35 pp.; doi: 10.3390/su11226340)
Sebastian Jäckle of Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Germany) conducted a systematic accounting of the travel-related CO2 footprints of the last six general conferences of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR). (All the meetings took place in Europe, except one in Montreal, Canada—which had, by far, the biggest per capita footprint given that all European attendees, who make up the vast majority of participants, had to fly.) Among his findings is that the location of meetings is key. (Had all six meetings taken place in Frankfurt, Germany, for example, GHG emissions would have been “significantly lower.”) Were the ECPR to locate its meetings accordingly, and also promote low-emission, land-bound travel, as well as allow for online participation (particularly for those residing very far from the conference city), travel-related emissions would be reduced by more than 75 percent, according to the author. Such reductions greatly dwarf those that would result from switching to vegetarian or vegan meals during the conference, or refraining from printing the conference program. (See Sebastian Jäckle, “WE have to change! The carbon footprint of ECPR general conferences and ways to reduce it,” European Political Science, Vol. 18, 2019: 630-650.)
In a spirit similar to that embodied by Parncutt’s and Seither-Preisler’s article, Ashley Dawson, an environmental humanities scholar at the College of Staten Island and the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, calls upon academia to do a lot more to decarbonize. Among his concerns is academic conference-going. Their face-to-face interactions, he acknowledges, provide many benefits, especially for scholars seeking tenure or promotion. However, he asserts, “we need to ask ourselves honestly whether these benefits are worth the staggering carbon emissions that conference-going generates. Surely it is up to those of us who are fortunate enough to have tenure to challenge the norms of our profession rather than to continue acting like members of the business class.” In addition to advocating divestment from fossil fuels, he suggests that online, low-carbon conferences—he cites a model developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara—are one way to challenge those norms. (See Ashley Dawson, “Academia and Climate Change,” Social Text Online, August 2, 2019.)
Shahzeen Attari, David Krantz, and Elke Weber have followed up their article from 2016 that demonstrated that climate researchers who fly frequently and consume a lot of energy at home are less credible with the public. Reflecting back, the authors characterize the results as “troubling” due to the fact “that most climate scientists, by virtue of the current practices of their profession, have a carbon footprint significantly higher than that of the general public.” The new publication builds on the previous findings. Their data demonstrates that the size of the co2 footprint of individuals advocating for low-emissions policies “massively affect[s]” not only “their credibility and intentions of their audience to conserve energy” but also the willingness of the audience to support public policies championed by “climate communicators.” Because those who call for for energy conservation and co2-reducing policies “must expect ad hominem arguments based on their own energy use,” it is imperative that they are seen as pursuing such practices in their own lives. The good news, the authors find, is that advocates who lose credibility because of large co2 footprints can regain it if they reform their behavior. (See Shahzeen Z. Attari, David Krantz, and Elke U. Weber, “Climate change communicators’ carbon footprints affect their audience’s policy support,” Climatic Change, June 2019, Volume 154, Issue 3-4: 529–545.)
One reason that high-flying academic mobility continues—this despite marked advances in virtual communication technologies—is that dominant discourse in the academy constructs such mobility as “essential” to the successful career, argue an international team of researchers. Interrogating a study sample of academic staff at University of Otago in New Zealand, the authors employ a lens of gender. Their aim is “to examine the subtle differences in language that create differing realities with regards to gender and obligations of care in academic mobility decisions.” They find tensions between a hegemonic discourse that elevates mobility as key to career advancement and a heteronormative one relating to parenting and care obligations. Together, they “render parenting and a ‘good’ academic career as incompatible, particularly for female academics.” In the end, the authors call for more research, Given the normalization of hypermobility at most universities, the authors call for more research to understand how such expectations are challenged and resisted, not least by those who seek to reduce their professional travel. (See Scott Cohen, Paul Hanna, James Higham, Debbie Hopkins, Caroline Orchiston, “Gender discourses in academic mobility,” Gender, Work & Organization, 2019, 17 pp.; DOI: 10.1111/gwao.12413)