These Earth and climate scientists have stopped flying, or fly less. Each speaks strictly on his or her own behalf.
People visiting this site will typically be like me; privileged high consuming individuals, living in relatively stable parts of the world and having benefitted from years of costly education. We are in the fortunate position to have the information, opportunity and wherewithal to sit back and think about the world in which we live and our role within in it. Moreover, because of the hierarchical structures of our societies and the trusted position academia still occupies, many people listen to what we have to say – inevitably weighing up our conclusions against how they see us and our institutions behaving. In the messy reality of life, the veracity and credibility of our research are intimately entwined, imposing a significant personal burden on those of us working on climate change.
In the late 1990s I became interested in aviation’s exemption from the Kyoto Protocol and its hallowed status within national politics. It was abundantly clear that here was a sector set to become an increasingly large thorn in the side of any meaningful mitigation. The demand for aviation was skyrocketing yet no technical solution was insight within a 2°C timeframe. The aviation industry and governments were in a cosy relationship, subsidies were and remain rife, and the policy agenda was very much “promote and provide”.
I’d moved away from working in the oil industry to try and make a difference – and here I was faced with an early opportunity to put my research into uncomfortable action. Not only did the science and numbers put a growing aviation industry far beyond the 2°C pale, but I also reluctantly recognised the credibility of my conclusions depended, in part, on my acting in accordance with them. Either I treated my research as a pleasant way of paying the bills or I grasped the bull by the horns and added credibility to my conclusions by giving up flying. That was back in 2004, since then the climate and aviation situation has gone from bad to worse – a lot worse.
So here we are in 2017. Virtually no 2°C carbon budget remains and despite almost three decades of empty rhetoric we’ve now upped the ante to 1.5°C. Meanwhile virtually every nation is seeking to expand its airport capacity to facilitate yet more flying by its wealthier citizens, climate scientists and ‘environmentalists’ (though of course we point the finger of blame at ‘humbler’ families taking occasional holidays to Benidorm.).
Set against this “cake and eat it” scam, there is a growing constituency of ex-fliers and less-fliers demonstrating through their research and action that genuine alternatives exist. We don’t have to lie to our children – we can care for their future at the same time as having satisfying lives and successful careers. Certainly this is not without its challenges, but as more academics and others seek substitutes for flying so these challenges morph into a new norm. If we are to make a difference in the politically charged terrain of climate change, diligent and meticulous research is not enough. Credibility is paramount and resides in the integrity of the relationship between the researcher and their research.
The brutal logic of carbon budgets
To meet the Paris 1.5 and 2°C commitments we must hold emissions within a range of carbon budgets. Regardless of the nuances in the science, the remaining budgets are very small and rapidly dwindling.
Within a highly constrained budget, when we decide to fly someone else has to reduce their emissions to compensate for ours. Given that the wealthy in society are the principal drivers of increased aviation, it is poorer communities who are essentially forced to pay this compensation.
Repeated research has demonstrated that increasing energy use by such communities significantly improves their quality of life. In the very near term, this energy will include fossil fuels – and hence a rise in their emissions.
Similarly, research demonstrates no discernable increase in the quality of life of wealthy high-energy users consuming yet more energy. Consequently, and given the whisper of carbon budget remaining for even 2°C, when we decide to fly to another essential climate change conference, undertake fieldwork or visit family, we are telling poorer communities to cut back on the energy they use to provide basic needs. Carbon budgets are brutal in that they reveal the callousness of our actions and no amount of eloquent squirming can mitigate the significant and growing impact of our frequent flights.
Kevin is a Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester and currently holds a two-year fellowship in Climate Change Leadership at Uppsala University. He is also deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. His current research focuses on understanding the implications of the Paris Agreement for mitigation rates and strategies at different geographical and sectoral scales. Prior to his academic career Kevin had an industrial background as a marine engineer and later as a design engineer in the oil and gas industry.
I am a huge proponent of human-powered transit, and pretty much any form of transportation other than flying. To this end, as much as possible I carpool, take public transit, ride my bicycle, or take the train to conferences and other academic obligations. For example, in 2014 I rode my bicycle 100 miles from College Station to Austin, Texas to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. In 2017, I have taken the train from Berkeley, CA to Denver, CO for the annual Entomological Society of America meeting. Taking the train also meant I could bring along my bicycle, which was great! These efforts still seem to be very far from the norm in my academic circles, but I hope to lead change by example.
I study metabolic and nutritional physiology in insects, and work primarily with wing-dimorphic crickets and leafcutter ants. I am broadly interested in how changing environmental conditions such as increased nitrogen deposition and atmospheric carbon dioxide impact food nutrient quality, and how this in turn impacts organismal physiology and fitness.
Working on carbon cycling (soils) in relation to climate change has made me aware of the importance to drastically curb emissions. However, preaching is not the same as acting. Therefore, since 2000 I have only flown once and this was for unavoidable field work in the Arctic. Since then I have not taken on any work or conferences/meetings where plane travel is necessary. This has not been easy – I certainly lost out on opportunities and had to make ends meet. It has also resulted in dealing with pressure from above (University) regarding the need to attend overseas conferences in order to apply for promotion (but I successfully defended my position). I think there is an urgent rethink required in the scientific community – air travel needs to be the last option and ideally is to be avoided.
Dr. Heinemeyer has been a soil scientist since 1998 (Diploma in Germany) and started to focus on plant-soil-atmosphere carbon cycling since his PhD (York, UK) in 2002. From then on he worked on various ecosystems, including arable, grassland, forests and peatlands. He routinely measure carbon fluxes and also model carbon sequestration as well as GHG emissions in relation to both climatic and management changes. This clearly highlights the importance of considering soil carbon feedbacks, both in contributing to (decomposition losses) as well as mitigating against (sequestration) rises in atmospheric CO2 and thus global warming. He has published more than 45 papers and contributed to a book on soil carbon dynamics.
Before I estimated my CO2 emissions, I had no idea that flying accounted for almost all of it. In 2010 I made a simple pie chart of my emissions. 50,000 miles of flying, almost all in the name of science, took up 75% of the pie chart! Obviously, no other reductions to my emissions really mattered until I stopped flying.
With a realistic sense of the impact of my flying, it came to feel wrong. I also began to question how necessary it was. In 2011 I flew 20,000 miles, and by 2012 I’d stopped flying. I’ve attended meetings remotely, traveled to them by train (although diesel-powered trains in the US aren’t as low-energy as you might think), and I’ve even traveled on a container ship (which was carrying atmospheric instrumentation such as radars and weather balloons for a field campaign). I drive all over the United States in a 35-year-old car that burns 100% waste vegetable oil from a local sushi joint. I find slow travel to be adventurous, a great way to visit old friends and get in some backpacking, and — if on a train or a ship — a great way to focus and get lots of work done. The old car is a fun thing for me because I enjoy the engineering challenge of keeping it running and out of the landfill! The higher that old odometer rolls, the prouder I feel.
I don’t currently foresee a need to fly. My close relatives live in the United States, and in case of emergencies I can drive or train to be with them.
Once I stopped flying, it did make sense to address my other sources of emissions. I currently emit less than 2 tonnes of CO2 per year, a tenth of the US average. I still look for ways to further reduce my emissions, but now I’m more interested in sharing what I’ve learned and helping people in my community reduce their emissions, too. Many of these people are inspired by my changes and have made significant changes of their own. I’m not under any illusions that my personal reductions have a significant impact when weighed against the emissions of more than 7.5 billion other people. But I believe that in making the changes I’ve made, I’m telling a new story and showing people what’s possible. Plus I just like it better.
My experience is that effective advocacy starts when we change our own lives. I’ve found it empowering to reduce my own emissions, and also surprisingly fun. I haven’t found low-energy living to be a sacrifice.
Peter is an Earth scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory / Caltech, speaking on his own behalf. He uses satellite and in situ data to study clouds and climate, and his research is wandering into other areas too. He obtained his Ph.D. in physics from Columbia University, and originally searched for gravitational waves with the LIGO collaboration before switching to Earth science due to a need to learn about climate change. His book, Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution describes what one person can do in response to the massive problem of global warming. Peter is the founder and editor of noflyclimatesci.org.
I started my experiment not to fly anymore after the Paris climate conference in late 2015. Some thoughts that were important for my decision to experiment with no-flying:
Credibility: As environmental scientists we can’t call upon the world to stop all CO2 emissions within the coming few decades while we ourselves don’t change our habits. Maintaining credibility of scientific facts, academia, and experts has become a key challenge of the sciences in our time.
Innovation: Inventing flying was an innovation, and inventing non-flying will be as well. Innovation happens only if we try, experiment, and learn by doing.
Opportunity costs: There is a belief in our society that we can have everything together – we can fly as much as we like and have simultaneously all the benefits of non-flying. But there are opportunity costs. My experience is that non-flying brings lots of benefits: more time, learning how to collaborate effectively through virtual means, collaborations at home with other disciplines and practitioners etc. These benefits would be much greater if we would together fly less; it is for instance amazing how poorly developed virtual communication technologies at universities are given that the same universities talk continuously about living in a novel age of the internet, artificial intelligence, and big data.
Reflecting upon the kind of science that is needed nowadays: As an ecologist I have the choice between flying to conference rooms where I discuss how to better analyse more data that shows ever more dramatically how badly affected our ecosystems are, or I can work together with social scientists, artists, urban planers, and practitioners at home to innovate carbon-free cities. Flying affects how we do science.
Christoph’s research focuses on the ecology of the Anthropocene such as climate change impacts on mountain ecosystems or restoring green infrastructure and biodiversity in cities.
I’ve been avoiding flights since 2003 when I started my first post-doctoral research position at the Tyndall Centre based in the University of Manchester. My research focus at the time was quantifying the impact of aviation on the climate, and comparing it with global and national goals and targets to avoid so-called ‘dangerous climate change’. Taking on this topic, it became immediately clear that the rate of aviation growth, and its associated CO2, was at odds with the UK’s own climate targets, as well as those being discussed within the EU Commission. In addition to this, I’d started working for the first time in an interdisciplinary research group, where engineers and physical scientists sit alongside social scientists and economists. Discussions around personal and institutional behaviour, the roles of individuals and communities, governments and NGOs were all frequent topics of conversation, often with a focus on flying. As a result my view on flying galvanised over time. I did not stop flying altogether until 2005, but my views became stronger the more frequently I presented the following conclusion to various audiences: that aviation has few technical options for decarbonisation, particularly in the necessary timeframe, and that cutting CO2 from aviation requires ‘demand management’. After delivering this message, I would frequently find that many audiences immediately asked if I flew to the conference, or flew much in my job. Academic or industry-focused discussions often became personalised.
So, whilst some will argue that individual behavioural change makes little impact on global levels of CO2, and therefore there is little merit in making a change, it was plain to me that my aviation-related behaviour mattered to some. To fly to a conference and tell an audience that the aviation sector needs to (at least) curb growth rates, started to seem highly contradictory. However, when I also described how policy options such as taxes, personal carbon allowances or emissions trading needed to be strong enough to ‘manage demand’ – and therefore require public support before policymakers will push hard enough – it put my own behaviour in the spot-light. It seemed to me that if I continued to fly it would be like a GP telling a patient to give up smoking while a packet of her cigarettes sat openly on the table, waiting for the next cigarette break.
Finally then, to my view on personal flying behaviour: it is that climate change experts, scientists, policymakers and anyone who understands the scale of the climate change challenge we face, will be considered role models by some, maybe many. We are influential, and what we do matters. I don’t believe that the climate problem will be solved by voluntary behaviour change, but I also don’t think policymakers will have a strong enough mandate unless individuals start to demonstrate how things can be different. Examples of having great holidays, keeping properly in touch with friends and family or being able to maintain an international academic reputation, all without flying, need to be demonstrated. And they probably need to be demonstrated by people who have influence, and can gain some level of trust on the issue of climate change. And I think that is people like me.
Alice is a Professor in Climate Science & Energy Policy as part of the Tyndall Centre and Head of the School of Mechanical, Civil and Aerospace Engineering, University of Manchester. Her research currently focuses on international transport and water-energy-food system scenarios within a climate change context. Alice trained as an astrophysicist at the University of Leeds and did her PhD in climate modelling at Imperial College.
As a researcher examining the interface of climate change and livelihood shifts, reducing my carbon footprint is a professional and personal issue for me. I try to do so by walking to work, carpooling, recycling and eating less meat. However, these options are difficult to engage with when the systems and institutions in a country disincentivise them. For example, Indian cities are not particularly known for being walkable or having cycling tracks, making these options perilous (two years ago, noted environmentalist, Sunita Narain was run over while cycling to work in Delhi).
Flying less is often put forth as a positive behavioural change with a large impact on individual emissions. I have consciously started flying less, either clubbing meetings to reduce multiple trips or taking the train if that is an option. However, again, being a researcher based in the global South, there are some challenges that are seldom recognised in narratives around ‘climate researchers must walk the talk’. First, with distances as large as they are in India, train rides can last well over 12-15 hours (and up to 24-36 hours if you are traversing the country). Taking such options might often mean travelling over the weekend, eating into time one reserves for family or self-care. Second, important conferences in my field are often held in America or Europe (e.g. Adaptation Futures 2016 was in Rotterdam, the Cities and Climate Change Conference 2018 is in Edmonton). Getting to these and showcasing one’s work is usually only possible by flying, often at a large financial and physical cost.
An argument I hear often is to not attend these conferences at all, thus eliminating the need to travel completely. Often, such suggestions come well-established researchers, with strong networks and an extensive body of work. To young researchers in my team, many of whom will use conferences to travel abroad for the first time in their life, the pros of presenting their ideas to an international audience, getting feedback on their work, and experiencing a different culture, outweighs concerns of carbon emissions. This is why, while I applaud my European colleagues who choose to take the train instead of flying from say the Netherlands to Sweden or France to the UK, I am unable to provide similar stories of restraint.
I continue to make small amends – offsetting some of the miles, using social media and livestreaming to learn of new advances in my field, and sharing with my team, opportunities to present closer to home. And though I try to fly less, as a researcher based out of South Asia and presenting on international platforms, I find it hard to do.
Chandni is a researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS), Bangalore. At IIHS, she works on issues of climate change, vulnerability, adaptation, and migration. This includes research on the Adaptation at Scale in Semi-arid Regions (ASSAR) project in South India and coordinating an IIED-funded project ‘Long-term Implications of Short-term Humanitarian Action’ in Chennai. She is also Chapter Scientist on the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5 degrees and Book Reviews Editor for Progress in Development Studies. She has previously worked in research and practice-based organisations such as the University of Reading (UK), Bioversity International, Pragya, and WWF India across India, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Her main domains of work have included climate information services, water management, biodiversity conservation, gendered vulnerability, and community-based adaptation, with a thrust on using mixed methods. She holds a PhD in International Development from the University of Reading and an MSc in Natural Resource Management from TERI University. She speaks here on her own behalf.