Flying contributes significantly to global climate change. It is responsible for 2-3% of annual global CO2 emissions–roughly the same percentage that both Germany and Beijing, for example, contribute each year. Meanwhile, flying’s share of global emissions is increasing steadily as the growth in total flying miles outstrips improvements in fuel and engine efficiency. In the United States, aviation is responsible for at least 8% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions — the largest source after automobiles. Because flying releases a variety of pollutants at high altitude, its detrimental impact is greater than that caused by CO2 emissions alone. One round-trip flight from New York City to London or San Francisco incurs a warming effect equivalent of more than two metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions per economy class passenger. This is an amount greater than 20 percent of the total annual emissions of a typical German, and larger than 100 percent of those generated by an average person in India.
Climate science posits a need to radically cut greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 90 percent (in relation to 1990 levels) by 2050 in order to limit temperature change to 2°C. Emissions are cumulative, so reductions cannot be delayed.
Universities and academic professional associations should be leaders on this issue. Flying is an elite activity. The vast majority of the world’s population has never flown. Academics–particularly those from the world’s most prosperous countries–fly more frequently than most people do. University communities typically embrace sustainable practices in other areas of daily life. It would be inconsistent to ignore sustainability just in the case of flying.
University-based faculty, staff, and students can make large reductions in their total greenhouse gas emissions with moderate sacrifice in terms of institutional goals, professional advancement, and quality of life. However, they require mechanisms that are institutionally sensitive to differences in status, power, and position, as well as the right structural supports. It is easier for university-based academics to reduce flying, for example, if their professional associations improve the design and scheduling of their scholarly meetings. Among other measures, academic meetings and conferences can employ technologies that allow remote participation and choose locations that allow easy access by train, bus, and car-pool. Regional conferences can be more frequent, and national and international conferences can be less frequent.
This petition is about much more than personal environmental choices. It is about coordinated large-scale institutional changes for global impact. For university communities and professional associations, reduced flying offers direct and indirect benefits for the environment. The direct benefits come from shrinking greenhouse gas emissions. The indirect benefits come from modeling in one social sector the type of change that is essential for all sectors, avoiding hypocrisy, and thus enhancing the moral voice and practical effectiveness of environmental research and policy advocacy by academic professionals.