Since 2011 I have logged at least 152,590 air miles. This corresponds to 98,300 kg of carbon emissions at an approximate conversion rate of 0.2 kg C / km (LIPASTO 2009) – and probably more significant when accounting for radiative forcing (IPCC). Almost all of this has been work-related travel – journeys to field sites, trips to conferences, and transitions to new jobs. Carbon emissions have been one of the major costs of my work to better understand ecology and climate change. And I know I am not alone.
Is it all worth it? It’s an important question, and one that I have been thinking about for the past few years as my travel has accumulated. A recent paper by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (Le Quéré et al., 2015 – covered by Nature) calls for scientists – especially environmental scientists – to reduce the amount of flying we do in our work. They argue that scientists need to lead by example – we fly far more than most people do, participate in the public conversation on climate issues, and so have an important opportunity (or moral responsibility) to make more environmentally friendly choices. Why should we be exempt from contributing to the emissions targets our countries have set? Is trust lost in the scientific community when it does not abide by its own proscriptions? Flying less is a difficult proposition for me, for many reasons that are thoughtfully outlined in the Tyndall Centre paper. I have fieldwork in other countries or remote areas that are nearly impossible to get to via other methods, or would take sufficiently long intervals that my work would no longer be feasible. For example, reaching South America from North America is nearly impossible without air travel, because there is no road or train line that crosses eastern Panama, and boat travel takes weeks. In order to share my research, build collaborations, and get new ideas, I have to attend conferences and meetings, which are rarely close enough to home to be able to reach by other means. For example, my last job offer was the lucky outcome of a chance meeting at a conference – at a drinks session I would have not been able to attend virtually, and at a destination that would have taken four days to reach by train. I lose all of these benefits by not flying.
Yet, maybe I should. Maybe I should re-orient my science to have a more local focus, choosing field sites that are nearby, and only attending meetings that I can reach by public transit. I could rely on collaborators for foreign work, and attend far-away meetings virtually. I try. I took a Greyhound bus to my last job interview. The other year I was living in Copenhagen and was invited to give a talk in Aarhus – so instead of even taking the train, I cycled there. But it took a whole day that I could otherwise have used for working. If I took this minimalist approach to all my work, I might soon have very little work left. I think there is an essential issue with the kind of work that ecologists and climate scientists do. Tropical forest ecology requires tropical forest ecologists. That is, knowledge and change do not come freely; rather, they come at the cost of hard work, and that work often has a large carbon cost. Our carbon emissions are hopefully a price that we pay to invest in our futures.
But I do think we can do better. I agree with nearly everything the Tyndall Centre report outlines. We can develop local capacity, so fieldwork and projects are led by local scientists rather than foreigners. We can focus our work closer to home. We can travel only for essential fieldwork or conferences, putting off opportunities where our contribution will be small. We can do better on supporting virtual meetings, and locating physical meetings in countries that minimize total emissions (e.g. the International Biogeography Society).
I am still thinking about my own choices. I have already said no to several international conferences this year, attended one virtually, and am trying to concentrate most of my fieldwork within a thousand miles of where I hope to eventually have a permanent home. But this year I am still going to cross the ocean several times for different obligations, and still will go to some tropical sites so that I can know them by the time I write about them. It’s a start. I hope I am investing my carbon emissions wisely.