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?

  • 1
    Why limit this so much? You should include the lights on when not needed, excessive use of water, poor buildings with excessive heating etc etc - if you really want to address this then you should do it properly.
    – Solar Mike
    Mar 14 '19 at 15:44
  • 3
    A couple of related questions that have been asked: How to promote reduction of carbon footprint for conference participation?, and What practicable alternative do I have to not fly around the globe to present a poster/pollute environment?. The main difference seems to be that those questions focused on what can be done on a conference or individual level, rather than the central funding level.
    – Anyon
    Mar 14 '19 at 15:53
  • I would very much like to do this properly, and I would hope that any action taken would also involve energy and resource conservation. I chose academic travel as something conspicuous, and which involves large-scale collective effort to change, but I entirely take your point that there are many other facets of this problem to be addressed. Mar 14 '19 at 16:17

I can think of two main ways to reach these goals:

Method 1: grassroot campaign

For example it could go something like this;

  1. Create a group of researchers from various fields who share this goal.
  2. This group reaches a consensus for a set of realistic measures that an institution could pledge to apply.
  3. Reach to the most prominent scientists from various fields, ask them to:
    1. publicly support the pledge
    2. lobby the institutions/organizations they belong to to sign it
    3. boycott the conferences which don't sign it.
  4. Keep the pressure from the scientific community until most major institutions are compelled to sign the pledge. At this stage extend the scope of target institutions to funding bodies and big industries.

Rationale for targeting the most prominent scientists: because they have the visibility and influence, they are on the board of the most important conferences, they can afford to boycott conferences and their boycott could destroy these conferences.

Method 2: patience

This kind of measures are going to be taken sooner or later, when the damage is too obvious to be ignored (recent research point to more death caused by air pollution than by smoking). At some point it will simply look ridiculous for academic institutions and funding bodies to insist on ethics in research while paying travel expenses across the globe for researchers. But that's going to take a while.


If you want to affect how universities do business in this or any other way, you have to get the policies changed. Those policies may be set by governments and/or boards of directors/overseers. To affect those changes you need to do things at that level. You can petition governments. You can elect better leaders. You can make public protests, etc. All of this requires collective action - organization. For private boards you can petition them at their (infrequent) meetings or you can try to push proposals upward from lower levels. Again, collective action.

These sorts of things can be effective, but big organizations have a lot of inertia. So, to move them takes a pretty strong force. None of the actors with power to change things like bad publicity, however. That can be an element of your collective action. Some people can be shamed into doing the right thing.

On the other hand, you can just ask individuals to behave better and to show them how to do it without disrupting their lives any more than necessary. Given the climate change potential disaster, a lot may be necessary, but individuals, like institutions have a lot of inertia. Make it easy to do the right thing if you can. Make it hard to do the wrong thing when you must.

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