I’m a 37-year-old research fellow at the University of Southampton. I carry out research into ‘green’ behaviour change: trying to identify ways to encourage people into more sustainable lifestyles, especially the tough things like energy use and transport.
International air travel is the biggest part of most academics’ work-related carbon footprint.
It’s estimated that, globally, the carbon footprint of academic air travel could be a whopping 184 million tonnes of CO₂ a year: about half the UK’s total annual footprint. While academics travel is often worthy and vital–to plan research, to conduct fieldwork, or to inform and persuade evidence international policy-makers – there are many flights which are probably avoidable.
Academics in the ‘Flying Less’ community are advocating for better video conferencing facilities, greater use of trains over planes, and an overall shift away from a jet-set academic culture where attendance at faraway conferences is seen as the route to ‘international recognition’ and career success. Instead, a growing number of academics are attempting to lead by example and fly less, or not at all.
I made a public pledge not to fly in 2019, and have pledged again for 2020, with the FlightFree2020 campaign (I urge others to sign up too!).
Having made my pledge, I then won a research fellowship, requiring me to do some fieldwork on the topic of Chinese environmental attitudes and behaviours–in China! The assumption was that I would fly there, but I wanted to honour my pledge and show that–by one extreme example–we don’t always have to resort to air travel to do international work.
So, after a bit of back-and-forth with colleagues, I went ahead and I booked the train… Or should I say trains…it took a total of twenty-four trains (and three visas) to cross Europe, Russia, Mongolia, travel internally in China, and then get back to the UK.
My time in China actually doing the work was probably the most rewarding and interesting part, and after travelling pretty continuously for two weeks to get there it was nice to actually get stuck in, see the environmental context first-hand and do lots of interviews. I’d been there several times before, but China is such a dynamic country, so full of colour, character, and contradictions that it’s a social scientist’s dream!
In terms of my journey, the Trans-Mongolian railway was the most dramatic section. Passing by Lake Baikal in Eastern Siberia, through the green steppes of Mongolia, onto the Gobi desert, and finally in and out of the mountains encircling Beijing through a network of tunnels, was both visually stunning and just a hugely impressive feat of engineering.
On my way home, I spent ninety hours on a single 4000km ride from Irkutsk to Moscow–more than enough for anyone! By the time I got to Moscow, my back was in a lot of pain from too many train-sleeps and not enough moving around. So I treated myself to a well-needed sports massage when I stopped in Kiev, but I still struggled with back pain for about a week after I got home.
Next time I would definitely pack a yoga mat and do some daily stretches. That aside though, the trains were amazingly punctual, safe, and clean. I had many in-depth and genuinely interesting conversations with my fellow passengers (mainly a mixture of Russian workers, students and tourists) and even made a few friends–you don’t make those kinds of deeper connections on planes too often.
In honesty, I probably wouldn’t want to repeat this particularly epic journey any time soon! But I am now far more willing and confident to use trains for long-distance travel, and I now appreciate how lucky we are in the UK to have access to a huge network across Europe and into Asia.
One big problem is the lack of decent, regular night trains, particularly in Western Europe. If we really want people to shift away from flying, this–as well as the scandal of untaxed jet fuel which enables very cheap flights–needs to change.
Individually, we all need to reduce our reliance on flying. This is particularly true for ‘frequent flyers’ who account for the majority of flights: in the UK 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of passengers. Not only can reducing flying demand actually result in airlines cutting back flights (as has happened in Sweden this year), it can also send a cultural signal to our peers.
Most importantly, it sends a powerful message to politicians: that there is an appetite for the brave decisions necessary–like removing aviation’s tax breaks and introducing a Frequent Flyer Levy–to push travel behaviours along a more sustainable pathway.
I think sustainability means recognising firstly the limits within which we–i.e. all of humanity–can live without endangering each other or future generations, and secondly, trying to get to within those limits, fast.
That roughly means getting down to about three tonnes of CO2 emissions per person as soon as possible–that is sustainable. In the UK we are currently closer to 10 tonnes per person now. Some of the actions needed to get there– like decarbonsing the energy grid–are out of individuals’ hands, requiring heavy-lifting by governments and industry.
But some things, like reducing domestic energy; eating less meat and more locally-sourced or seasonal food; or changing our transport habits are all areas we can each act on, right now.
“I think sustainability means recognising firstly the limits within which we–i.e. all of humanity–can live without endangering each other or future generations, and secondly, trying to get to within those limits, fast.”
I am still writing up the results of my China fieldwork. From that, I hope to understand how norms around sustainability vary between the West and China, and what lessons we all might learn from different political and cultural approaches to our common environmental challenges.
I also intend to do more research on how to cut aviation emissions, fairly and quickly. Flying is a tricky and topical piece of the decarbonisation puzzle and one which isn’t going away any time soon.
Thank you, Roger–you are a hero and we look forward to hearing more about your work in the not so distant future.