What can Universities do to reduce flying?

The University of Sheffield is one of a growing number that are publicly committed to going carbon neutral. Cutting air travel is among the quick ways to make a difference, with flights accounting for something like 12% of total carbon emissions for a University like this. But for academia, as for many professions, reducing flight is not straightforward. Over recent decades, key parts of University business and academic careers have become dependent on cheap and fast international travel.

An international symposium in Sheffield, organised by Matt Watson (Geography) and Stephen Allen (Management) in November 2019, brought together leading researchers into academic and business flight, as well as people with experience of initiatives that help to reduce flight dependence. Ten papers came from academics attending the event in Sheffield physically from across the UK, and contributing remotely from Scandinavia, Australia and the USA. Around 30 people attended physically on the day, with around 80 attending remotely, from more than a dozen countries around the world. We therefore learned both from the presentations, and from experimenting with technology that can help enable international collaboration without travel.

The talks we heard and discussed ranged widely around this challenging topic. Joseph Nevins, joining virtually from New York, spoke compellingly on flight as ‘slow violence’, an argument echoed by Johan Gardebo (in Stockholm), presenting flight as a banal evil. Kim Nicholas, in Lund, situated flight clearly in the climate crisis with compelling statistics and arguments before sharing experience in trying to effect change in Universities, to forge new examples of low emission research cultures.

In the room rather than over a video link, Monica Buscher particularly drew attention to key aspects of communication that cannot be substituted virtually – the importance of physical co-presence for building trust in a new international research team, for example. Both James Faulconbridge and Andrew Glover (the latter speaking to us from Melbourne) both emphasised the complex ways in which flying has become embedded in institutional cultures and academic practices. Andrew also emphasised the difference geography makes to flight dependence, something also argued by Debbie Hopkins. At Sheffield we have other world leading Universities within an hour’s train ride, and many more internationally within a day’s train ride. As was pointed out, there’s no Eurostar option from New Zealand. Stuart Capstick presented fascinating findings on climate scientists’ flight.

Importantly, we also heard about initiatives and experiments in doing academia differently. Renee Timmers shared experience of co-organising major international conferences through multiple hubs around the world with virtual connections for sharing sessions, and Sion Pickering shared experience of the efforts at the University of Edinburgh to monitor and reduce business travel.

Contrasts between speakers and sessions were strong, but together they worked to effectively unpick the vexed issue of academic flight, and the challenges and opportunities facing measures to radically reduce air travel dependence in academia. Slides from the talks, and video captures of their presentation are available here.

The collaboration technology worked well. Incorporating virtual communication and collaboration to academic practice is inevitably challenging and, as we demonstrated, it takes changes in the details of how we act, changes in norms and routines of communication, challenges we overcame. But it also opens up new opportunities. First, we had far wider participation than we could have anticipated, including connections made with a room of 20 people in Scandinavia. Second, the software opened up new opportunities for collaboration, debate and resource sharing, with the software’s chat function keeping lively throughout the day as a ‘back channel’. Third, as Kim Nichols demonstrated, by presenting a keynote speech in Spain the same day she contributed to us in Sheffield, while sitting in Sweden, cutting flight can go along with increasing international engagement.

On the day, we were lucky to have Tom Foster from the University’s Elevate team, assisting with the technology. He has written a blog post on how the software worked and what he learned from it for enabling virtual collaboration. Other coverage of the event includes this post on the British Psychological Society website, and this post on the Carbon Neutral University website.

Dr Matt Watson
Senior Lecturer in Human Geography
Department of Geography