The human-induced climate crisis happening right now is no longer news. While many people urge their governments to change policies to reduce our carbon footprints more easily, there is also the possibility of individual action, or change - such as less frequent flying.

In academia, flight can be reduced by some amount (decentralized conferences, etc.) but to many people it seems difficult if not detrimental to science or mankind in total to stop flying altogether.

It is possible to offset the CO2 emissions of a flight by spending money on some carbon capture project or some project that reduces future emissions (e.g. by renewing technical machinery in third world countries). Where does this money come from? I know from colleagues that they asked their university administration to use their travel funding for some CO2-offsetting agency, and were told that this was not possible.

If I understand the rules in Germany correctly, it is not the funding body who makes such a decision but the states general travel rules for state employees.

The question I have is:

Does anyone have experience in negotiating (with a positive outcome or not) such a use of academic travel funds for offsetting the carbon emissions? If so, how did it go? What were the stumbling blocks?

If you thought about the issue but had reservations on why this might not be a good idea at all or why it is hard to actually implement, I would also appreciate your comments, though I'd prefer if you could phrase it as answer to the question(s) stated.

  • 5
    Why would you even want to? Grant money is supposed to be spent on science, not growing trees (unless you were given a grant to study tree growth).
    – nick012000
    May 9 '19 at 2:39
  • 3
    It is unethical to harm living things without any need to do so for a scientific project, and most funding bodies already agree on this. For very visible harm there are very strict rules (e.g. in research involving killing genetically modified mice). There, money has to be spent on reducing harm, although that is not always the scientific focus! So I would say your "supposed to" is not quite true for most grants. May 9 '19 at 7:36
  • 12
    @nick012000 Grant money is supposed to spent on science, not on jet fuel or hotel coffee (a major component of conference registration fees). Nevertheless, jet fuel and hotel coffee are justified grant expenses, because travel demonstrably catalyzes science. There is a strong argument that CO2 offsets are simply part of the cost of travel, like jet fuel and hotel coffee.
    – JeffE
    May 9 '19 at 9:40
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/q/126468/93566
    – Erwan
    May 26 '19 at 22:20
  • Related question: negotiating rail travel where such travel costs more than flying.
    – Flyto
    Jul 16 '19 at 23:19

In general, grant or contract money cannot be spent on anything except the designated purposes permitted by the funding agency. If the funding is coming from an agency of the US Government, those purposes probably are not allowed to include carbon offsets.

That said, it does appear that at least one university has figured out a way to pay for carbon emissions. The key seems to be imposing the cost as part of departmental overhead, such that it's not directly associated with any grant, but mixed in with all the other things the university supports and the funders have no control over, like pencils, daycare benefits, on-the-job injury insurance, and deans of student happiness.

  • The linked site, about one university's program to assess a fee for air travel, explicitly exempts grant-funded travel. (See the third question from the bottom of the page.) Jul 16 '19 at 23:06
  • @AndreasBlass Ah, you're right... I missed that. Goes back to the point in my first paragraph, then.
    – jakebeal
    Jul 17 '19 at 2:15

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