We Don’t Need Aviation Offsets: Institutions and Individuals Can Own Their Carbon Emissions

by Parke Wilde


Sellers of aviation offsets use the mantra, “reduce what you can and offset the rest.” But some offsets are fraudulent, many offsets overstate their net carbon reduction, bad offsets distort the carbon market by suppressing prices across the board, and we do not need offsets as much as we might think.

Carbon offsets are controversial financial instruments that seek to compensate for the climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions of institutions or individuals by making payments to others to reduce their emissions. The most notable offset markets are for aviation emissions. Many airlines now sell optional offsets when customers buy tickets. British Airways in 2019 started directly offsetting its emissions on some flights, and U.S. carrier Jet Blue in 2020 announced a similar policy. Offsets are central to the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a UN agency.

Supporters say offsets allow buyers to help address climate change while continuing activities that may be essential for institutional or personal goals. In the environmental online magazine Ensia, a 2019 column by Christopher Preston argued, “If you are flying, you should be buying carbon offsets. Air travel has a gigantic carbon footprint. And, contrary to popular belief, carbon offsets do make a difference.”

Critics say some offsets are little better than medieval religious indulgences to comfort the buyers’ guilty consciences without really helping mitigate climate change. In a 2012 column in Nature, climate scientist Kevin Anderson said, “Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and almost certainly contributes to a net increase in the absolute rate of global emissions growth.” At the January 2020 meeting of global business leaders in Davos, Switzerland, Swedish activist and noted non-flyer Greta Thunberg said, “We are not telling you to ‘offset your emissions’ by just paying someone else to plant trees in places like Africa while at the same time forests like the Amazon are being slaughtered at an infinitely higher rate.”

Many writers seek a middle ground, trying first to reduce flights and then encouraging offsets for the remaining essential flights, despite recognizing flaws. For example, a 2018 Wired article concluded, “[O]ffsetting isn’t an easy out, but it is a stopgap solution until these companies can figure out entirely green transportation with electric motors.”

This essay argues that institutions and individuals in academia should skip offsets entirely. My main target reader is people in the middle group. I have two recommendations. First, for climate mitigation globally, institutions and individuals should support emissions reduction activities directly and generously, without undermining or zeroing out their benefits through flying. Second, for our own aviation impact, as institutions and individuals, we should reduce what we can and not offset the rest. If our travel really deserves to be recognized as essential, we can own the emissions proudly.

How offsets are supposed to work

In offset markets, the buyers estimate the greenhouse gases they have emitted, measured in units of metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e). The offset sellers engage in some activity that reduces net greenhouse gas emissions, such as planting trees, repairing methane leaks from old coal mines, or providing improved wood-burning cookstoves to rural families in Honduras, measuring the savings in the same metric of CO2e. Buyers and sellers agree on a price, such as $15 per metric ton of CO2e.

In the large research literature on carbon offsets, authors typically begin by summarizing desirable qualities of a good offset scheme. For example, see a report from the Stockholm Environment Institute by Bailis et al. (2016) or a paper by Kim and Pierce (2018) offering advice to scientific societies that wish to reduce their climate footprint. The qualities include the following:

  1. Permanence, so carbon that has been sequestered in an emissions reduction activity does not return to the atmosphere at a later time;
  2. Absence of Leakage, so an offset does not give credit for an emissions reduction when really the emissions were just moved from one location or time period to another;
  3. Verification, so claims of emission reduction are confirmed by a credible authority; and
  4. Additionality, meaning the emissions reduction activity would not have happened anyway in the absence of the offsetting scheme.

If an offset scheme really met these four criteria, we could think of the carbon-emitting activity (such as flying) being balanced against the climate-saving activity (such as improving cookstoves), for a net carbon impact of zero.

How offsets overstate their benefits

Many offsetting schemes fail to achieve the first three desirable qualities, as Lisa Song explained in a devastating 2019 expose for ProPublica. For example, an environmental non-governmental organization (NGO) may sell offsets for a forest protection plan, without really having the political power to enforce the plan permanently in the face of future pressure from local residents. Or a logging company may sell offsets for not harvesting a particular forest, and then harvest as much timber as it needs from a different forest. A recent report from UC Berkeley found that the forest offset protocol for the California Air Resources Board assumes only a 20% rate for such leakage, but published studies estimate the rate is 80%. A report on forest offsets from Norway’s Office of the Auditor General finds uncertain results, unsatisfactory monitoring, and insufficient follow-up regarding instances of fraud.

Even fewer people understand a subtle but pervasive problem with the fourth desirable quality, additionality. To demonstrate additionality, offset sellers must develop a formal counterfactual scenario, describing what they think would happen in the absence of the offset purchase. The offset buyer is supposed to get credit for the portion of the project’s emissions reduction that goes above and beyond what would have happened anyway.

To use one common example, if a non-governmental organization (NGO) sells offsets for providing fuel-efficient cookstoves to low-income households in Honduras, its counterfactual scenario may stipulate that low-income households would have continued using unimproved wood stoves, so the offset buyer gets credit for the full difference in carbon emissions. But, in a more realistic counterfactual scenario, many things might have caused some households to stop using the unimproved wood stoves:

  • If the fuel-efficient stoves really work, some households would have made or purchased them;
  • Some rural households will be reached by rural electrification projects, and others will move to cities or towns where there are electric and gas stoves;
  • Some households are given improved cookstoves by NGO or government initiatives using direct funding, without offsets; and
  • With rapid deforestation in rural areas, some households will run out of wood, unable to continue using the unimproved stoves.

In short, some but not all of the cookstoves funded by offset schemes are additional, in the sense that they only happened because of the offsets. A 2016 study, from researchers at the Stockholm Environmental Institute and the Institute for Applied Ecology, entitled “How additional is the clean development mechanism?,” reported that cookstove projects likely “considerably over-estimate the emissions reductions due to a number of unrealistic assumptions and default values.” The study similarly found implausible additionality assumptions in claimed emissions reductions for wind, hydro, waste heat recovery, fossil fuel switch, efficient lighting, and many common project types in offsetting schemes. Leakage and unrealistic counterfactuals cause offsets to be priced too low.

How offsets might cause harm

Beyond being merely ineffective or underpriced, offsets may cause harm. Lisa Song quoted Larry Lohmann, a long-time researcher on this topic, saying, “Offsets themselves are doing damage.” In a 2019 working paper for Stanford Law School, Barbara Haya and colleagues described potential unintended consequences. “Financial incentives created by an offset protocol can also inadvertently increase emissions,” they write, “for example by increasing the profits of high-emitting activities, creating disincentives to enact legally binding climate regulations, and inducing business-as-usual mitigation projects to shift their activities to earn offset credits.” As a case in point, the authors describe how the Bureau of Land Management contemplated requiring methane capture at coal mines on federal lands, but stopped seeking such a requirement and went with an offset program instead.

Some offset marketing emphasizes emissions reduction first, but other offset marketing takes a disparaging tone toward emissions reduction and treats offsetting as a robust remedy. UN Climate Change (UNFCCC) posted and then later took down a video for an offsetting program, mocking consumers for modifying their lifestyles instead of offsetting.


Source: Climate Home News (2018).

For ICAO, the UN agency responsible for international aviation, the offsetting scheme under CORSIA has successfully delayed action on actual aviation-sector emissions reduction. Under CORSIA, ICAO says it seeks to hold “net” emissions at 2020 levels, allowing actual emissions from international aviation to grow but offsetting the new emissions. I have asked ICAO what the target is for actual emissions from aviation, but the agency will not say. In formal comments on CORSIA, I reported my inability to find a single candidate offset scheme among the many proposals that used a realistic counterfactual scenario in its additionality provisions. ICAO has blocked the Twitter handle for our initiative and others, echoing the rhetorical approach toward critics used by the Trump administration, wrongly accusing us of “fake news” and “spam,” even though my questions always have been respectful. The process for certifying offsets under CORSIA is not transparent. As noted by Baroness Bryony Worthington, executive director of Environmental Defense Fund Europe, “[G]iven the massive lack of transparency around ICAO generally and the board in particular, there is as of yet no guarantee that CORSIA overall will result in genuine carbon offsets and thereby make a meaningful contribution toward climate protection.”

We cannot treat offsets as a harmless additional step after our own emissions reductions have been achieved. Due diligence is needed before purchase and especially before recommending them to others.

How offset prices reveal their flaws

We should be especially concerned about offsets with low prices. On current offset markets, it is easy to buy offsets for just $3 per metric ton of CO2e or less. From sellers with stronger verification, widely considered legitimate, prices are typically between $9 and $15 per metric ton of CO2e. No matter what your opinion on offsets in general, these cheap offsets should set off your implausibility detector alarm.

The average annual per capita carbon footprint in the USA is approximately 16 metric tons CO2e, and a rare frequent flyer may use 40 metric tons. To believe there are legitimate offsets for $3 per metric ton, you would have to believe that exceptional frequent flyers, with emissions many times higher than the global average, can fully offset at an annual cost of $120. Even with a price of $15 per metric ton, the annual cost would be only $600, which is a small fraction of a frequent flyer’s annual income. This is too good to be true.

Even supporters of offsets sometimes have wondered why the prices are so low. The 2018 Kim and Pierce paper mentioned earlier, offering advice for scientific societies, acknowledged, “We don’t fully understand why the vendors we’ve investigated sell carbon offsets for $9 to $15/ton while the average price in voluntary carbon markets overall (according to Ecosystem Marketplace) is merely $3/ton.” They list potential explanations for the price variation, such as bulk purchases or differences in profit margins. These explanations do not seem sufficient. Instead, the low prices and wide price variation indicate deep flaws with offset markets.

In principle, offset markets should guide financing to the lowest-cost emissions reduction activities first, then medium-cost activities, and then, if there remains enough demand from buyers, high-cost activities last. For example, improved cookstoves could be a low-cost activity, but with a limit on the total emissions reduction possible from this approach. Analysts can list a wide variety of emissions reduction activities, each with their own corresponding cost and limit on total potential: reforestation, carbon farming, bioenergy, and so forth. At the upper end, engineers may scale up technologies that have unlimited potential, such as directly capturing CO2 from the air, but the cost will be high, perhaps $400 to $600 per metric ton of CO2e plus capital costs. In economics jargon, well-behaved offset markets would have an upward-sloping supply function, where the price rises as the quantity grows. With effective offset markets, the low-cost options would be quickly exhausted and the market price would climb.

Thus, the current low prices on the offset market reveal weak certification standards. For example, an illuminating analysis by Warnecke et al. in Nature Climate Change investigated the market for old certified emissions reductions (CERs) available for sale under the Clean Development Mechanism, which unfortunately may be treated as legitimate under the ICAO’s CORSIA aviation offsetting scheme. For many of these old offsets, the emissions reduction activity is not at risk of being discontinued when the offset funding stops. Further sale of these offsets should not count as additional, because they do not reflect emissions reduction beyond what would happen in the absence of the offset purchase. Yet, so many of these old offsets are available for sale that they will suppress the market price. The authors have a nice chart illustrating the vast quantities of dubious offsets that will be available at near-zero prices if the weaker standards are accepted by ICAO. With strong standards that exclude dubious older offsets (in green and blue), the supply function is steep, leading to higher prices as the quantity increases.


Marginal costs of supplying CERs for the period 2013–2020. “The left part of the ‘base case’ curve is relatively flat because it mainly includes projects with low vulnerability. These projects only have to cover ongoing CDM transaction costs—but no marginal abatement costs—to issue CERs. The right part of the curve is steeper because it includes mostly projects with high or variable vulnerability. These projects also have to cover GHG abatement costs. The figure also illustrates scenarios for vintage restrictions under consideration for CORSIA. Please note that this figure includes only the supply from registered projects.” Source: Warnecke et al. 2019.

The low prices prevent large-scale offset purchases from reaching higher-priced emissions reduction activities that do more good. It matters little whether you or your institution choose a respected vendor with more rigorous verification standards than CORSIA’s. The prices on the offset market are not determined by you, but by the actions of the large and economically powerful participants, including the major airlines such as British Airways and Jet Blue mentioned in the introduction. If the ICAO and the major airlines use inexpensive offset schemes with weak certification criteria, it suppresses the offset price for the entire market.

Some readers may agree with this analysis of flaws in current offset markets, while hoping that the markets can be improved in the future. Suppose it ever should happen that offset markets were reformed, rigorous standards were imposed for all flying, and large-scale buyers entered the market and bid up the price to realistic levels. The resulting increase in the cost of flying would influence demand. For example, if the price of flying was increased by 50%, people might fly 20% less (assuming, in economic jargon, a price elasticity of -0.4). With implausibly low prices, offset markets give people license to fly without consequence. By contrast, paradoxically, if their flaws could be repaired, offset markets would support prices high enough to motivate us to fly less. In the end, for individuals and institutions that support climate action, the flying less part is unavoidable.

The problem with offsets is the flying, not the contributions to good causes

Faced with these arguments, colleagues sometimes tell me more forcefully about the merits of the emissions reduction activities supported by their offsets. For example, their favored offset program not only saves carbon, it also promotes social justice. In the same spirit, the Kim and Pierce paper recommends offset schemes such as the Gold Standard for “beyond offsetting emissions, also contributing to the economic and social welfare and development of the people where the project is taking place.”

This approach may betray the speaker’s distrust of the quantitative mechanics of carbon offsetting. It makes it seem only the following options are conceivable:

  • Keep flying and not offset; or
  • Keep flying and purchase offsets despite their flaws, to contribute to good causes.

But, in my view, we have two additional options to consider:

  • Make financial contributions to good causes and keep flying; or
  • Make financial contributions to good causes and sharply reduce flying.

This last option is the good option. The problem with offsets is not the contributions to good causes; the problem is the frequent flying. The world needs each and every ton of CO2e emissions reductions from the good activities we finance. We should not offset these good activities to support our flying.

We do not need offsets

Finally, many people feel reliant on flying for their quality of life and, more importantly, for the good they do through their work, including work that is valuable for addressing the climate crisis. Besides offsets, they ask, what is the alternative?

Fortunately, offsets are not as necessary as they appear. Consider the situation of an individual or institution whose intention is to reduce emissions by flying less where possible and then offsetting the remaining essential flights. The true merit of this approach depends on honesty in defining “essential.” In this section, let us think about how the remaining flights would be judged by an impartial observer who understands both the severity of the climate emergency and the social value of the individual or institution’s travel.

First, obviously, if the impartial observer would rule that certain flights are inessential, then an offset purchased under a flawed scheme will not really cancel the carbon debt. In this case, ethical standards require further reductions in flying.

Second, less obviously, if the impartial observer would agree that certain flights are essential, because of the great good they bring to humanity, then no offsetting is needed. In this case, why should one feel compelled to buy offsets?

Our psychological reliance on offsets betrays an uncomfortable truth. As individuals and as members of institutions with a public interest purpose, such as universities, we lack confidence that our reductions have been morally sufficient. We know that much of our flying deserves to be judged inessential.

In the end, why do individuals and institutions purchase offsets? Offsets reveal that, deep down, we know history will judge our flying badly. If we were proud of our emissions, we would want to stand nakedly like victorious Olympic athletes in ancient Greece, wearing nothing but our crowns of laurel. We would not need to hide. We would not need to clothe ourselves in offsets.

The next time an individual or an institution claims to have already reduced their flying as much as possible, ask them if they offset their remaining flights. Trust them more if they proudly own their emissions rather than offsetting them.

New Saxifrage chart on flying and other transportation

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.


The FlyingLess End-of the-year Update for 2019! (Part 2)

Climate change activists protest proposed expansion of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, December 14, 2019.

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.

Days after Massive Attack’s statement, a study was published that revealed that air pollution from planes using Heathrow Airport—including ultra-fine particles, which previous research has linked to brain cancer—are reaching central London, 14 miles [22.5 kilometers] away. According to Dr Ioar Rivas, of King’s College London, and a lead author of the study, “We expected traffic emissions to be an important source of ultra-fine particles in cities but we now know that airport emissions, even if located at the outskirts of the city, can travel far enough and reach population in urban areas.” Gary Fuller, also of King’s College and a co-author of the study, notes ,“Cities around Europe have policies to reduce airborne particles from traffic…but aircraft emissions are not being addressed in the same way.”

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 Logo [EPS File] - Academia Gandavensis ...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!

Image result for society for cultural anthropologyThe 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.

Virtual Blue COP 25: 24-H Ocean Day EventIn 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

Martin Young of Southern Cross University in Australia argues that there is a “symbiotic, environmentally destructive relationship between passenger air transport and economic output” under capitalism. Coupled with the fact there is not “a technologically-feasible replacement for jet fuel,” efforts to reduce flight-related emissions require an appreciation of the multiple ways in which air travel is tightly tied to the reproduction and growth of capitalist society—a matters he explores in the article. With such an analysis in mind, one way to advance a flying less agenda, he suggests in the conclusion, “may be to link air transport more closely to the emerging anti-tourist politics based around the ‘right to the city’” as well as to the “slow travel” movement and anti-airport-expansion efforts. (See Martin Young, “Capital, class and the social necessity of passenger air transport,” Progress in Human Geography, 2019: 21 pp.; DOI: 10.1177/0309132519888680)

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.)

Meanwhile, Milan Klöwer, a PHd student of Atmospheric Physics at the University of Oxford, released a working paper just prior to the opening of the annual meeting  of the American Geophysical Union in December. He estimated that travel to and from the international conference, one that involved approximately 24,000 presenters in its most recent meeting, resulted in the equivalent of more than 69,000 tons of co2 emissions, an average of 2.9 tons of co2e per scientist in attendance. Were the AGU simply to locate the meeting to a location that would minimize travel—to Chicago in particular—it would reduce meeting emissions by 12 percent.  As a whopping 74 percent of the travel emissions come from intercontinental flights, the author further estimates that, were 36 percent of the highest-emitting attendees (those who travel the greatest distance) to participate virtually, it would reduce the co2 footprint by 76 percent. To achieve more than a 90 percent reduction would require not only such virtual participation, but also a shift to a bi-annual meeting in Chicago. (See Milan Klöwer, “The travel carbon footprint of the AGU Fall Meeting 2019,” November 2019; DOI: 10.5281/zenodo.3555424)

Taking steps to achieve such far-reaching cuts, argue Richard Parncutt, and Annemarie Seither-Preisler of the Centre for Systematic Musicology at the University of Graz (Austria), are matters of ethics and social equity. They contend that “today’s academic conference culture continues to put academic colleagues under pressure to burn large amounts of fossil fuels,” the concerns of climate science notwithstanding. In light of the privilege enjoyed by academics—particularly those from wealthy countries—and the fact that emerging internet-based communication technologies make possible low-co2-emitting ways to connect, the authors assert that scholars have an obligation to push for a transformation in what they call “academic conference culture.” To aid in this push, the authors offer various strategies for advocates of such transformation to work with colleagues and administrators to bring it about. (See Richard Parncutt, and Annemarie Seither-Preisler, “Live streaming at international academic conferences: Ethical considerations. Elementa Science of the Anthropocene, Vol. 7, article 55, 2019, 13 pp.)

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)

Four geographers from Durham University and Lancaster University (United Kingdom) have assessed the CO2 emissions associated with U.S. war-making across the globe by focusing on the Pentagon’s supply chains, particularly “the acquisition and distribution of staggering volumes of fuel.” They find that the U.S. military consumes more fuel than many medium-sized countries. Furthermore, were the Pentagon a country, its annual fuel consumption would be between those of Peru and Portugal, making it the forty-seventh-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. This does not count “emissions from the electricity and food the military consumes, land use changes from military operations, or any other source of emissions.” The “bulk” of the fuel consumed—and thus the associated greenhouse gas emissions—is jet fuel. Among the authors conclusions is that “social movements concerned with climate change must be every bit as vociferous in contesting US military interventionism.” Given the centrality of controlling access to, and ensuring the flow of, oil to U.S. military strategy—which points to how U.S. militarism is key to making possible academic jet-setting and its reliance on high oil consumption—these findings highlight another dimension of the importance of FlyingLess. (See Oliver Belcher, Patrick Bigger, Ben Neimark, and Cara Kennelly. “Hidden carbon costs of the ‘everywhere war’: Logistics, geopolitical ecology, and the carbon boot‐print of the US military, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, June 2019, 16 pp.; DOI: 10.1111/tran.12319)