Academia and air travel: how sustainable is UCL?

UCL sustainable

By Juliette Grieve & Riddhi Kanetkar

Despite a growing awareness towards tackling the climate crisis, many UK universities ‘have spent tens of millions of pounds on hundreds of thousands of flights over the last four years’. This is concerning due to the detrimental impact that air travel has had on the environment. As one of the major pollutants on this planet, air travel needs to be curbed if universities are to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, with academic integrity being tied to a heightened international reputation, the association between academia and aviation is strong. Many academics are ‘frequent air travellers’, who visit countries abroad for conferences and research purposes. However, with the world now confined to a stationary framework of online Zoom calls and lab tutorials, there is hope that aviation emissions will decrease.

Between 2016 – 2020, UCL was named as one of the ‘biggest polluters’ for their use of air travel. With a reported 21,138 flights accrued between the four years, questions can be posed about UCL’s commitment to sustainability. This concern was echoed by Sustainable UCL, who outlined that: ‘Travel makes up almost half of our total carbon emissions, three times as much as heating and powering our buildings! We can combat this by promoting active travel, and by improving teleconferencing facilities and online resources.’ With this in mind, one would expect that reducing the aviation output would be a key concern for the university.

UCL’s sustainability goals

UCL has published its environmental goals for 2019-2024 in a document titled Change is possible: The strategy for a sustainable UCL, with its priorities listed under “Headline Commitments for 2024”. However, neither air travel nor reducing transport more generally were mentioned in this section. The document does later acknowledge the issue of travel under its “Positive Climate” campaign. Here UCL states, vaguely, that it aims to “explore ways to help our staff and students reduce the climate mpact of their travel” in order to maintain global connections without leaving London. The only concrete solution which was mentioned to tackle the issue of air transport was the enhancement of video conferencing software as a replacement for in-person meetings. However, platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams have existed for years, which begs the question: why did it take so long for UCL to propose this solution? Whilst the use of video conferencing is possible in internal meetings, UCL may not have control over the way other institutions run their academic conferences to which they are invited. As such, UCL could promote a cross-institutional consensus on using video conferencing software, which could effectuate change across UK universities.

In his ground-breaking 2019 article, ‘The case for letting anthropology burn’, Ryan Cecil Jobsen touches on the uncomfortable irony surrounding academic conferences. Even in subjects concerned with tackling oppression, climate change and its impacts, academics often fly miles to attend conferences, adding to the climate crisis in the process. As always, climate change will affect the least privileged most significantly; during the San Jose American Anthropology Association Conference, attendees were hosted in temperature-controlled venues, whilst incarcerated workers laboured tirelessly to fight the Californian wildfires and the vulnerable members of the local population struggled to rebuild their lives. The need for long-term changes in university conferences is therefore becoming increasingly evident.

The future for sustainable strategies UCL’s sustainability strategy document is likely outdated; they mention that enhanced video conferencing should be implemented by 2021 but as we all know too well, the replacement of in-person activities with online software had already become our new normal in 2020. We have first-hand evidence that video conferencing does work, albeit with the occasional technological difficulty. The end of the COVID-19 crisis will be a good opportunity for UCL to make some drastic changes to their long-term travel policies. The success of video conferencing during the pandemic provides us with the hope that it is possible for universities to maintain global partnerships whilst also caring for the planet.

A performance review by People & Planet’s University League, an ‘independent league table of UK universities ranked by environmental and ethical performance’, placed UCL as a 1st class institution in conjunction with their wider sustainable development goals and practices. Ranking among the top 20 UK institutions for sustainability, we can hope that UCL cultivate this drive for environmental preservation, and make increased progress to minimise their aviation output.

This featured in CG Issue 76