How can we create an environment in which academic institutions are responsible for the carbon footprint of the research carried out under their auspices?
For context, I am a postdoc working several thousand miles from home. I try to mitigate my carbon footprint, but there is absolutely no incentive not to travel, other than personal conscience. In fact, one actively harms one's career prospects by not travelling to academic conferences, for research visits, etc. Currently I am using my own money to carbon offset every flight I take, but I cannot avoid flying if I want to retain my job. I am certain that I am not the only academic unable to reconcile my love of my research with the entirely unnecessary environmental damage which it is causing.
The individualism of academia means that my university appears to take no interest in mitigating the climate impact of the research going on within it, and seems to consider any action on the matter to be my personal responsibility, rather than their responsibility as my employer. This should not be a matter of personal conscience (or financial resources) for junior members of staff on precarious contracts.
I am aware of initiatives such as Flying Less, but these largely rely on individuals to risk their career progression by participating. It clearly is not enough to tell academic staff not to attend conferences or to travel to perform research that will further their careers. How can institutional change be effected?
Some thoughts, which would likely need support from national-level funding bodies to implement:
- Could carbon offsetting costs be factored into research grants?
- Could carbon trading schemes be instituted?
- Could universities cap the maximum air miles of their staff?
- Could remote participation in conferences be incentivised?
- Could conference funding be made contingent on climate mitigation measures being implemented?
- How can we push institutions to create the systemic changes to our profession which are clearly required?
I am of course aware of the arguments that, e.g., academic travel is a negligible fraction of total air travel; air travel is by no means the largest part of the problem; we need more research in order to combat climate change, not less, etc. However, it is my opinion that academia needs to be an exemplar of adapting to become sustainable. If we as scientists cannot alter our own behaviour in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is actively harmful, how can we expect others to moderate theirs?