Recently, we witnessed a fascinating conversation among a few of our professorial colleagues about their frequent flyer status on a prominent airline. Two of them had achieved “Diamond” status ― the very top of the priority boarding pecking order. They spoke the most and were the loudest. The others, with either Platinum or Gold frequent flyer medallions, also noted how “busy” they were with “all this travel.”
The group casually mentioned the various benefits ― such as seating upgrades and access to airport lounges ― that come with their statuses, but the bragging was not really about those perks. It was about importance and recognition. After all, only the most successful academics fly around the world, attending conferences, participating in workshops and giving lectures. Congratulations all around!
Also recently, 13 major universities launched the University Climate Change Coalition, or UC3, which seeks to “help local communities achieve their climate goals and accelerate the transition to a low-carbon future.” Several of these institutions are also participating in the Climate Leadership Network, a larger group of colleges and universities that have made a commitment to “take action on climate and prepare students through research and education to solve the challenges of the 21st century.”
But while these universities are working to help their communities take on climate change, academics are accumulating big carbon footprints with their jet-setting professional styles. As The New York Times noted, “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel.”
This is a notable disconnect between what universities preach and what their culture incentivizes and their star professors do. Academics are probably among the people most aware of the threats posed by climate change. But might their own carbon-profligate lifestyles undermine their moral authority to demand that coal miners, Teamsters working on oil pipelines and mining-dependent Native American tribes sacrifice their own economic well-being to fight climate change?
Air Miles As Status Markers
What is the carbon footprint of flying? According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.7 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. One round trip flight from Washington, D.C., to Beijing generates 4.3 metric tons of CO2 per passenger seated in economy class, almost equivalent to the annual footprint of an average car. If you fly business class, multiply this by a factor of three.
When we have gently confronted our colleagues about carbon footprint issues in the past, we have received these sorts of reactions:
We bike to work (or drive a Prius or a Leaf), therefore international or cross-country travel is OK.
Because we are the global experts, travel is required to disseminate knowledge and to solve global problems.
We buy carbon offsets.
These are good responses but ultimately not persuasive. The reality is that cross-country or international travel is an important status marker in our profession. Few academics want to give up this recognition they have probably earned after years of struggle and hard work.
The reluctance to unilaterally curb air travel also reflects a collective action problem. If “others” were to reduce their conference travel, I might be willing to go along. But what if they do not? To solve the free riding problem, universities should provide an assurance mechanism that levels the playing field.
How To Reduce The Carbon ‘Airprint’
As academics, we recognize that workshops, meetings and conferences are important for producing and disseminating knowledge. Our objective therefore is to reduce the carbon “airprint,” not eliminate travel.
One way is to increase the cost of travel by requiring professors and their funders to pay for the social cost of carbon. Higher travel costs would force academics to prioritize and they would travel only for the most important events. We suggest a two-step approach.
Universities routinely require professors to fill out annual reports. What if these reports included a section on air travel? The university’s website could provide a carbon calculator that uses a standardized metric to assess the carbon airprint of their faculty’s professional travel.
In 2014, our school, the University of Washington, undertook a similar exercise. UW’s analysis of travel reimbursement data suggested that its professional travel that year amounted to 136 million miles and created 23,811 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Arguably, as with salary information, public universities could make the carbon airprint data publicly available. Let sunlight disinfect, as Justice Louis Brandeis had suggested.
Second, universities should establish an internal carbon tax.
Scholars have developed very good estimates of the social cost of carbon. Based on these estimates, universities could tax carbon emissions. Using the UW data, an internal carbon tax of $20 per ton (as per Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2018 proposal) would amount to slightly less than $500,000, a very small sum for a university with an operating budget of over $7 billion. The tax would be paid either by the department in which the traveler was located, or by the funding agency defraying the cost of the research-related travel. Of course, if the university hosting the professor wanted to pay the tax instead, that could be credited to the professor’s carbon account.
For equity reasons, a carbon tax should be tiered. Those below a specific travel threshold ― say 25,000 miles per year ― could be exempted. The marginal tax on carbon emissions could rise in a graduated fashion, with the rates for every tier adjusted so that on average, the university fully internalizes the social cost of carbon for the professional travel of its professors.
Universities could then use these funds to buy carbon offsets. Professors could buy offsets on their own as well and universities could then deduct the amount from that person’s carbon tax payment.
What About Academic Freedom?
Our proposal might be criticized on several grounds. First, it is plausible that we are exaggerating the scope of this travel problem. Academic travel probably constitutes only a small portion of all air travel. The UW study found that professional travel accounted for about 11 percent of the university’s total emissions.
But calculating carbon footprints is so easy, and carbon taxes would be such a minuscule part of the university budget, that the gains need not be huge. After all, universities that call for climate change action should at least scope out the problem internally and create base-level estimates of the carbon footprint for every professor.
Second, our proposal could be viewed as an assault on academic freedom. Arguably, professors and researchers should be able to travel wherever they wish, either to gather data or to present their findings. Any restriction on travel could be seen as constituting administrative intrusion into research, a very touchy issue in contemporary times.
In reality, most academic work is already subject to regulatory and administrative oversight. Take the case of human subject review. Universities want to ensure that their researchers pose minimum risk to any human subjects they study. Climate change poses the ultimate risk to the entire human population. Why not subject it to administrative review?
Universities As ‘True’ Climate Leaders
Our modest carbon budgeting proposal has several payoffs for universities. First, it would demonstrate to all stakeholders that universities were willing to walk the climate walk. Second, faced with a carbon budget, professors would have incentives to interact with their colleagues at other universities in novel ways.
Perhaps teleconferencing would become more popular. Maybe over time mega conferences with thousands of attendees would become less attractive as decentralized networks for knowledge exchange emerged. Instead of attending five major conferences every year, professors might start attending only two or three. And they might start looking for conferences within their time zones.
Academics are capable of finding the answers to most complex problems, including climate change. But their excellent research will be less effective in changing public policy and popular culture without their moral leadership. And moral authority comes when we are willing to forgo valuable things to serve the public purpose.
If there is an overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is influenced by human beings, then academics should personally do something about it. Even if it means fewer conferences and less air travel.
Nives Dolšak is associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and Aseem Prakash is the founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.
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