Introducing the Oxford Flying Less podcast

The Oxford University Flying Less Group has put together a fantastic, six-part podcast on aviation and higher education. Rather than focusing on what is lost by markedly reducing academic jet-setting, the podcast asks, “What do you and your university stand to gain by Flying Less?”

The rich set of episodes engage experts from a wide array of universities and academic disciplines while addressing a diverse set of topics, ranging from matters of career advancement, accessibility, and gender to the social and climatic implications of net zero versus absolute zero emissions. The podcast does so with the goal of illuminating challenges associated with reducing flying, while addressing questions of why there is a need to fly less and how to do so—all while maintaining robust international engagement, not least in terms of research and teaching.

Rather than focusing on what is lost by markedly reducing academic jet-setting, the podcast asks, “What do you and your university stand to gain by Flying Less?”

Dr. Noah Birksted-Breen, a postdoctoral research associate at Oxford, is the host and producer of the podcast; Ryan Beckerleg, a research student at Cardiff University’s School of Physics and Astronomy, edited the series. Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment in collaboration with the university’s Environmental Sustainability team commissioned the endeavor.

Below are links to all the episodes.

Episode 1 – Why do we fly and could we fly less?

Episode 2 – Decarbonising conferences

Episode 3 – Flying Less research–thinking ambitiously

Episode 4 – Aviation and the case for Absolute Zero

Episode 5 – How to thrive when Flying Less? Staff Profile: Dr. Michele Veldsman, Experimental Psychology (Oxford)

Episode 6 – How to thrive when Flying Less? Staff Profile: Professor Hannah Knox, Anthropology (UCL)

Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update, Part 2: Recent academic publications

Farnsborough Airport protest, October 2, 2021. Source: Twitter, Extinction Rebellion UK.

To see Part 1 of the “Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update,” go here.

Throughout the world, and particularly in the West, “many academics today think of flying—even of the intercontinental variety—as an essential aspect of their work life,” Indeed, over the last several decades, “the idea that flying is necessary if one is to have an academic career has become ever more entrenched and appears now an almost inseparable part of what it means to be an academic.”

These are the words of Kristian Bjørkdahl  and Adrian Santiago Franco Duharte, two University of Oslo scholars and the editors of a new, open access book, Academic Flying and the Means of Communication. (Available online, you can access a PDF of the book by clicking on the image of the book cover below.) The edited volume is composed of thirteen chapters written by an interdisciplinary group of scholars from Australia, various countries in Europe, New Zealand, and the United States.

A basic question animates the book: “Can the academic-as-globetrotter image be made to seem a thing of the past?” It starts “from the notion that the urgency of the climate crisis presents academics with a call to confront their flying habits, and that this confrontation must include an attempt to identify pathways towards a more sustainable academic enterprise.”

The book has three main goals, which it addresses through a set of empirically and theoretically rich essays: 1) to document how much academics fly and to consider the myriad consequences of that flying; 2) to explore the various reasons why academics fly as much as they do; and 3) to think about how and with what we can replace flying, how we can communicate and collaborate in ways that don’t involve aviation.

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We know that air travel must be reduced. A question thus arises: Who will be affected by reduction policies? With a focus on the United Kingdom, this is the matter that concerns Milena Büchs and Giulio Mattioli in their new article (“Trends in air travel inequality in the UK: From the few to the many?” Travel Behaviour and Society 25, 2021: 92-101).  While it is well established that participation in flying is highly unequal, the question is, how has it changed over time—as air travel has grown? Through two representative surveys, the authors examine UK flying tends from 2001 to 2018. They find that “less privileged groups (low income, low education, non-white) have contributed more to the increase in air travel” in relative terms than “well-situated” groups. “In absolute terms, however, well-situated groups have contributed a much larger volume to the expansion of air travel.” Overall, the authors find that air travel “remains extremely unequally distributed” in the United Kingdom, with 20 percent of passengers responsible for 75-76 percent of all flights. As such, “policies that target air travel emissions are defendable from a fairness point of view as they will mainly burden well-situated groups in society.”

As manifested by the summaries we do in these FlyingLess updates, the literature on academic flying is increasing rapidly. This is unfolding at a time when calls for, and a related literature on, decolonization of the academy are also growing. Nonetheless, according to authors Joseph Nevins, Stephen Allen, and Matt Watson (“A path to decolonization? Reducing air travel and resource consumption in higher education.” Travel Behaviour and Society 26, 2022: 231-239), the two groups of scholars have failed to engage one another, despite having overlapping concerns. The authors thus put them in conversation to advance “a common project to challenge disparities between peoples and places, as well as interspecies ones, as they relate to aeromobility, consumption, and political ecology.” The three authors argue that aviation-related consumption relates to and helps to reproduce enduring inequities born of imperialism. As such, they contend that flying less efforts contribute to “both the decolonization of higher education and of the larger world.” Similarly, they insist that the project of academic decolonization would benefit by centering matters of nature and environmental consumption.

A team of four global health scholars want to see their professional community reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. To help figure out how to do so, they look at “how ten European global health research institutions in the ‘TropEd’ network for education in international health are transitioning to environmentally sustainable operations and reducing their carbon footprint. By way of analysis of annual reports and information of the institutions and interviews with key players within them, the authors determine that only 4/10 institutions have a sustainability strategy and implementation plan, and only 3/10 have specific decarbonization goals. The authors urge institutions to enhance their sustainability: e.g., to be inclusive (by involving staff, researchers and students, for example) in implementing plans; to set clear goals consistent with the latest climate science, to take account of the full range of greenhouse gas emissions related to their activities (including investments); and to center matters of climate justice. They also advocate individual and collective behavioral changes. These include “using active transport or public transport to get to work, choosing to connect to meetings online rather than flying and choosing plant-based food and beverages. (See Kate Whitfield, Alexandru Cretu, Teun Bousema, and Justin Cohen. “Environmentally sustainable practices in global health research and higher education institutions: lessons from consultation with the TropEd Global Health institutions.” Tropical Medicine & International Health, 2021).

The global events industry—of which academic conferences are typically part—has expanded rapidly. It is also enormous: in 2017, report four authors (Yanqiu Yao, Debbie Steckel, Jiří Jaromír Klemeš, and Fengqi You, “Trend towards virtual and hybrid conferences may be an effective climate change mitigation strategy.” Nature Communications 12, no. 1, 2021: 1-14.), business events involved more than 1.5 billion participants across over 180 countries. Not surprisingly, the CO2 emissions associated with the industry are enormous: responsible for more than 10% of the world’s total (and roughly equivalent to U.S. emissions). As such, it is imperative that event organizers shift to less-carbo-intensive meeting formats. To help facilitate this, the authors “quantify the life cycle environmental impacts of in-person, virtual, and hybrid conferences …  to understand the trade-offs between in-person interactions and the carbon footprint of conferences.” They find that that switching from in-person conferences to fully virtual ones would reduce the carbon footprint by 94% and CED by 90%. As for using multiple hubs —so that a large of participants still have the benefits of in-person gatherings—assuming optimal siting and about 50% of participants virtual, they have the potential to cut total emission by two-thirds. Switching to plant-based foods (especially of an ovo-vegetarian variety) and improvements in energy efficiencies of information and communication technologies will cut emissions even further.

Given the tensions between universities’ need to foster international networks and expand research and teaching on their moral obligations to decarbonize, a pair of geographers consider how academic departments can navigate this conundrum. To do so, Joe Williams and Whitney Love (“Low-Carbon Research and Teaching in Geography: Pathways and Perspectives.” The Professional Geographer, Vol. 74, No. 1, 2022: 41-51) examine Durham University’s Department of Geography (United Kingdom). A department with more than 850 students, air travel associated with research and teaching is by far its single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Through a survey of students, the authors, suggesting various strategies, find a high level of support for decarbonization related to travel and thus considerable potential for significant emissions reductions with little impact on quality of research and teaching. The authors emphasize that responsibility for decarbonization of higher education does not lie with individuals. Instead, it requires “systemic material and cultural change toward a decarbonization agenda—a shift that geography departments can and should lead.”

The same issue of The Professional Geographer has a “focus section” centered around Kevin Anderson’s plenary lecture at the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) in 2020. The focus section is divided into two parts.

Part 1 begins with an introduction and an abridged text of Kevin Anderson’s lecture. Eleven brief essays commenting on the lecture by a diverse set of geographers follow.

Kafui Attoh pushes Anderson to consider matters of capitalism and the power of labor in the fight against climate change. Next, Daniel Bedford explores how climate leadership can emerge in unexpected places such as non-elite universities. Magdalena García then offers a view from Chile, arguing for a democratization of knowledge production as a way to challenge climate injustices. In what follows, Matthew Huber criticizes an overemphasis on individual emissions and argues for a focus on building social power to take on industrial capital. In the fifth essay, Sarah Hunt / Tłaliłila’ogwa calls for a confrontation with colonial norms within academia and a centering of Indigenous knowledges and peoples in climate discussions.

Glen MacDonald, in the sixth essay, considers the importance of travel to academic geography, how colonialism and imperialism have shaped the profession, and the resulting climate debt. Beverly Mullings follows by contending that the climate fight requires an ontological shift, one that entails making links between capitalism, coloniality and the devaluation of nature and racialized others. In the eighth piece, Elizabeth Olson calls for an intersectional approach as we work to bring about a less consumptive academy, an undertaking that must begin with those who benefit most from the status quo. Next, Richard Wright argues that the social changes required by climate change are possible—as shown by the pandemic and protests around police brutality and anti-Black racism—and advocates framing climate change as a matter of inequality. The tenth response, by Emily Yeh, makes a case for collective action in the effort to transform the AAG and to identify and bring about inexpensive and low-emitting ways to network and share research. The final essay, by Wendy Jepson, Patricia Martin, and Joseph Nevins, argues that individual and collective change are necessarily linked and asserts that what academics do on the climate change front is important for broader societal change.

Part 2 has three components, the first of which concerns academic knowledge production.

The opening article, by Jayme Walenta and Aylin Castro, measures the travel-related CO2 emissions for the AAG meeting in 2019, an imagined meeting in Chicago, and a would-be meeting composed of hubs in the United States and beyond. The authors also consider the limitations of an analysis focused on carbon emissions and push readers “to imagine solutions that more deeply challenge academia’s structural divides.”

The second article argues for a centering of racial justice in the project of imagining knowledge production and sharing beyond the fossil-fuel-heavy conference model. Tianna Bruno and Cristina Faiver-Serna call on geographers to detoxify spaces and places of geography, while contending that such actions will improve academic inquiry into the climate crisis.

Anthropologist Hannah Knox follows by reflecting on her own decision to stop flying. In so doing, she asserts the need to not only attend to cutting the footprint of academic conferencing, but also grapple with what it means for academic identities, experiences, and commitments.

Finally, Patricia Martin maintains that addressing the high emissions of AAG Annual Meeting is not simply a technical matter, but one that reflects the neoliberal internationalization of the academy. It thus requires challenging fossil-fueled hypermobility market imperatives and advancing geography as a public, non-commodified good.

The second component of Part 2 considers the question of whether the AAG should use carbon offsets to aid in the transition to a low-emitting future.

In the first response, Kathleen McAfee asserts that while, at best, offsets potentially result in no change in total emissions, theory and practice demonstrate that they do not work and actually make matters worse. As such, McAfee rejects offsets and advocates for focusing efforts on far-reaching cuts in emissions and matters of environmental justice.

The term carbon offsets, Lauren Gifford explains in the second response, covers a wide range of practices, some of which do not fit the definition of offset. These not-strictly-offsets (e.g, carbon removal and drawdown activities), she suggests, offer potential paths for the AAG to pursue, and for scholars to research, in an effort to achieve carbon neutrality.

The third and final component of Part 2 is a co-authored essay by Ashley Fent, Christine Gibb, Sachiko Ishihara, Joseph Holler, and William Moseley. The team considers ethical dilemmas for geographers who conduct international field research. They advocate engagement with. slow geographies and slow scholarship literature and relational understandings of the field. They also call for efforts to transform academic institutions so that they allow for collective decision making around carbon budgets, travel, and shared responsibility Together, these endeavors could help to reduce travel emissions while still allowing for robust international engagement.

Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update, Part 1: Kicking the Can at COP-26 & Fighting Airport Expansion

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Extinction Rebellion NYC banner at Westchester County Airport (about 30 miles north of New York City), November 29, 2021. Source: Instagram.

With its modest achievements, the UN Climate Change Conference (October 31-November 12, 2021)—popularly known as COP26—was a disappointment to say the least. Among the many areas in which the gathering fell short was aviation.

According to one aviation sector publication, “COP26 ends with a broad agreement across the industry that they will target net zero by 2050, in line with the Paris Agreement.” Key to this agreement was what took place a few weeks before COP26 when, at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), nearly 300 of the world’s biggest airlines endorsed a net-zero resolution.

Willie Walsh, the IATA director general, insists that the commitment is “a big deal.” But what it means in practice is an open question at best. Most likely, it means little–at least for the foreseeable future.

As climate scientist Kevin Anderson asserted in an interview during COP26, “Everyone is now using this expression ‘net zero.’ You can be a net zero oil company. You can be net zero Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Norway or the U.K. or the U.S. Everyone can become net zero, every county, every company. It’s vacuous. It’s completely meaningless. When you unpick what’s behind net zero, I mean, all it is, I often say, is it’s Latin for kicking the can down the road. It’s passing the burden on to the next generation.”

“[Net zero is] Latin for kicking the can down the road. It’s passing the burden on to the next generation.” –Kevin Anderson

Indeed, that same aviation industry publication admits in relation to the net zero target, “how aviation will get there remains less clear.” It seems to assume “new technologies will plug the gap and in the shorter-term there is huge reliance on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), although scaling these up to the level required will be challenging.”

(That “scaling up will be challenging” has not prevented airlines from continuing to greenwash their activities and plans for expansion. United Airlines, for example, announced in June that it would spend $3 billion on supersonic jets—which use 5-7 times as much fuel as conventional aircraft. Not to worry, says United: the supersonic jets will be designed to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuels—produced from recycled cooking oil, agricultural waste, and other materials—making the flights “net zero.” Cait Hewitt, policy director of the London-based Aviation Environment Federation, calls plans to put these fuels into supersonic jets “an insane use of scarce resources.”)

A small way COP26 could have displayed a strong commitment to dealing with aviation-related emissions was by limiting air travel to and from the gathering. Instead, as noted by many media outlets, the conference involved an inordinate amount of flying—a lot of it by private jet.

According to one report, more than 400 private jets carried world leaders and business executives to the Glasgow gathering—this as the World Meteorological Association announced that the annual rate of sea level rise had doubled since the 1990s. U.S. President Joe Biden and his entourage, for example, arrived in four planes; those alone generated an estimated 980 tons of C02 emissions.

Other jet-setting VIPs arriving by private jet included Microsoft multibillionaire Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, head of Amazon, which pledges to reach “net-zero carbon” by 2040. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson flew back and forth from London, and Prince Charles flew in from Rome—after ensuring that his plane was using “sustainable aviation fuel.”

There are many reasons to protest such profligate consumption, one being that it enshrines double standards, while undercutting the perception that rapid and far-reaching decarbonization is needed.  As the UK Labor Party’s Net Zero spokeswoman Monica Lennon asserted, “Flying by private jet while claiming to care passionately about tackling the climate emergency really is rank climate hypocrisy. It goes against what all of these national leaders tell people they should be doing – they should be leading by example.”

“Flying by private jet while claiming to care passionately about tackling the climate emergency really is rank climate hypocrisy. It goes against what all of these national leaders tell people they should be doing – they should be leading by example.” — Monica Lennon, UK Labor Party’s Net Zero spokeswoman

Another one is human life itself. It is conservatively estimated that private jet travel to and from COP26 resulted in 13,000 metric tons of emissions (to say nothing of the emissions associated with the thousands who arrived by commercial aircraft). According to a recent study published in Nature Communications, every 4,434 tons of emitted CO2 leads to one premature death due to rising temperatures. By this measure, private jet travel to and from COP26 translates into about three excess fatalities.

What is to be done about this? Environmental writer Dharna Noor suggests a global ban on private jets or, at the very least, a 100% tax on private jets and travel to help fund the Green Climate Fund.

More broadly, what is needed is a rethinking of the very organization of international climate meetings. If academics are increasingly adapting how they meet and collaborate, should we not demand the same of national and international leaders? Why not make the meetings virtual—which would have the added advantage of allowing a lot more to attend? The notion that face-to-face contact is needed for the hard conversations that such conferences involve is belied by their impoverished results.

What really explains these fossil-fuel-dependent events is force of habit—and an effective refusal of the rich and powerful to challenge their wasteful ways.

This is also a problem of infrastructure as the very presence of airports and their continued growth allows for ever more business as usual. And the ways in which some of them are run promotes obscene waste.  Here’s an example: according to recent reports, there is a strong possibility that Lufthansa will have to fly 18,000 empty planes to maintain take-off and landing slots at airports in Europe.

The centrality of infrastructure is a key reason why anti-airport fights are so important—and why they are growing in number. As Eraldo Souza dos Santos notes in The Washington Post, “Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a worldwide increase in local anti-airport movements, motivated both by global climate concerns and by local worries about issues such as water pollution and displacing poor or minority communities.” He observes that a combination of global concerns—e.g., climate breakdown—and local ones (land rights, biodiversity, air and noise pollution, for example) typically motivate these movements. “This combination of local concerns with global focus may help explain why these protest movements endure,” he writes.

Anti-airport movements also have a considerable history, one that goes back to at least the mid-1960s, to draw upon, dos Santos points out in a different article. In addition, these movements now take place across the global: “From Peru and Uganda to the United States and India, disparate groups of citizens have organized against the environmental and local impacts of airport land development., For dos Santos, another expression is the organization Stay Grounded, an international network of 170 activist organizations around the world. Like Global Anti-Aerotropolis Movement, Stay Grounded seeks to build links between local campaigns and organizations.

A reminder to COP26 delegates from No 3rd Runway Coalition of the need to fight against large sources of carbon emissions, including the expansion of London’s Heathrow Airport. Source: Hillingdon Vision.

New resources

Speaking of Stay Grounded, the group (along with the Green European Foundation) has just released a new report, “A Guide to Engaging Aviation Workers and Trade Unions.” As “climate campaigners are coalescing around an agenda of no expansion of airports and the need for a long-term reduction of aviation,” Stay Grounded insists that it is imperative that the perspective of workers be taken into consideration.  The guide recommends five steps: 1) understand unions and workers by building relations of trust; 2) lead on jobs by prioritizing alternative, quality employment for workers displaced by anti-airport efforts; 3) focus on future threats by emphasizing how the climate and broad ecological crisis threatens workers, making the need for a rapid, just transition imperative; 4) support the demands of workers and trade unions in abroad sense; and 5) avoid generalizations by being sensitive to the specific circumstances of the workers and contexts that you are engaging.

Have you ever wondered about the size of your local airport’s carbon footprint? The International Council on Clean Transportation (headquartered in Washington, D.C.), ODI (London), and Transport and Environment (Brussels) have produced an online tool that measures the C02 emissions generated by departing aircraft from airports around the world. Airport Tracker “contains information for the 1,300 largest global airports, covering 99% of global airline passenger traffic.” (It does not cover emissions for cargo-related aviation.) Via the Tracker, one learns, for example, that flights departing from LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) emitted 15.3 million tons of CO2. This amount is equivalent to all of that emitted by Slovenia (a country of 2.1 million people) and more than that by Tanzania (with a population of 61.5 million) in 2019.

To see Part 2 of the “Dec. 2021/Jan. 2022 Update,” go here.