With the challenge posed by the global climate crisis, universities are at a crossroads. While they simultaneously must contribute to an increasingly globalizing society through international research collaboration, they must also drastically cut down their CO2 emissions if they wish to comply with government-set targets and lead by example. Researcher mobility plays a significant part in the CO2 emissions of universities globally, with the carbon footprint of scientists often even exceeding that of a typical citizen.
Veronica Ahonen and her colleagues from the University of Helsinki collected data from the 14 Finnish universities to form a comprehensive picture of the state of academic mobility in the country. The study combined existing literature and strategy and mobility reports from the universities and their travel agencies with GIS analysis. The key results revealed that universities are in varying states of sustainability with some acting as clear trendsetters and others lagging. Although the universities are performing well in areas such as preferring European destinations over intercontinental ones, they could still improve by reducing stopovers and one and two-day trips. According to the authors, alternative transport forms should be strongly encouraged and emission targets and calculators standardized to help reach the 2035 carbon neutrality targets set by the Finnish government.
The carbon footprint of travel comprises several factors
Compared to energy, heating and waste emissions, the monitoring of travel emissions is difficult because they are largely generated outside the workplace. Their reduction requires more complex change involving a multitude of stakeholders, and due to the potential conflict of responsibility, may lead to the neglect of the problem altogether.
Based on the data provided by travel agencies, the researchers studied the most common aircraft carriers, the number of landings, total flight kilometres, departure and destination locations, duration days, CO2 emissions, the number of total employees and the percentage of flights booked outside the official travel agency.
The choice of each parameter was based on the existing literature. For instance, the number of stopovers is deemed important, since for flights over 800 km even 25% of their emissions are produced during the landing and takeoff phase, so that direct flights generally produce less CO2 emissions. Past research has also revealed that short stays at faraway destinations produce the highest carbon footprint, which is why it would be important to prefer longer stays in short-distance locations.
Finnish universities in varying states of sustainable mobility
The research revealed that there is no fixed state of academic air mobility in Finnish universities – rather, they are in varying states, with carbon neutrality targets ranging from 2024 to 2035, with 7 out of 14 universities having considered offsetting, and nine aiming for carbon neutrality.
“As it is an ongoing effort, it is likely that within a few years, all universities in Finland have at least considered it. They will have to if they wish to comply with the governmental 2035 targets. Some have made large leaps even during the time that this article was written and published – e.g. the University of Helsinki has brought its carbon neutrality target forward from 2035 to 2030”, Ahonen states.
The results revealed a few key areas of development. Currently, academics have little choice concerning the choice of airline and travel type – e.g. at the University of Helsinki, the official travel guidelines state that work-related travel should take as little time as possible and be as inexpensive as possible. Flights with one or two stopovers were also still relatively common. The travel locations also revealed some interesting results, with European destinations being far the most common, and with large cities with academic hubs dominating the results. These cities may also act as important nodes with major airports, which is why a lot of stop-overs are taking place there. Air travel to northern Finland was still relatively quire common, as flights over a distance of 500 kilometres clearly outperform train travel in terms of speed.
“The nature of the university can also have an effect on the travel destinations. At the universities focusing on economics and technology, like the Hanken School of Economics and the Aalto University, researchers seemed more often to fly to long-distance locations with economic hubs and less flights to developing continents, like Africa. On the other hand, natural scientists or researchers in social or cultural affairs flew more often to less developed continents”, says Professor Petri Pellikka, supervisor of Ahonen’s doctoral studies and director of the Earth Change Observation Laboratory at the University of Helsinki.
One of the most striking results was the prevalence of one and two-day trips: at the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, they made up almost a quarter of all travel. This supports past research on the importance of short stays such as conferences and meetings.
The ongoing COVID-19 situation provided an unexpected extra angle to the research
“In a way we are in the middle of an interesting case study. Due to COVID-19, travel at the University of Helsinki decreased by as much as 87%, as almost all functions of the university were moved online. This era has revealed both the opportunities and challenges of virtual presence. Not all functions can or should necessarily be moved online. Informal gatherings and networking occasions involve a lot of random human interactions that videoconferencing technology currently fails to replicate. It is here where more research on the individual habits and effects of travel is needed”, says Ahonen.
1. Updating present guidelines
- Ensuring that academics pick the most sustainable instead of the most economic option.
2. Preferring short-distance locations
- Reduces several stopovers and the need for long-distance flights
- Shifting to alternatives where they are faster than a flight
- Supporting alternative forms even when they would take longer than a flight
- Reducing stopovers, e.g. with the help of a levy placed on individual flights
4.Favouring virtual presence instead of short stays
- “Is corporeal presence necessary?"
- Networking occasions prioritized over existing networks, such as committee meetings
5.Standardizing emission calculators
- Increases comparability of data
- Open information on calculation methods could help replicate results better
6. Increasing information
- More data on individual mobility habits and large patterns of the issue required
- Conducting organization-wide surveys to study the reasons behind mobility
- Calculating the magnitude of flights booked outside official travel agencies helps understand the full scope of mobility
This research was funded by the University of Helsinki Doctoral Program for Interdisciplinary Environmental Sciences.
Ahonen, Veronica; Siljander, Mika; Pellikka, Petri; Johansson, Tino; Rask, Mikko. 2021. "The Sustainability of Academic Air Mobility in Finnish Universities" Sustainability 13, no. 5: 2948. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13052948