Academic air travel unjust and unsustainable – report

The pandemic proved that HE can be ‘effectively detached from air travel’, says a new report from the University of Manchester

A new report is urging the academic community not to return to pre-Covid levels of air travel.

Flying had increasingly become a “normal part of university business”, claim researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, at the University of Manchester.

“As the higher education sector recovers from the pandemic, now is the time to solidify and extend ways of working that reduce air travel,” write Dr Vasco Zeferina and Dr Claire Hoolohan, the co-authors of Academic aeromobility post-Covid 19.

The call to turn away from air travel is not simply related to concerns over sustainability; there are also issues around inequality.

“Participation in air travel, and the consequences of non-participation, are uneven, intersecting with other inequalities linked to disability, gender, race, and class,” claims the report. “Therefore, reducing air travel presents an effective means of reducing universities’ emissions and an opportunity to establish inclusive and accessible ways of working.”

Although acknowledging that reducing air travel is a live issue across the sector, the report shows little confidence that change is likely to result from current proposals.

“Academic aeromobility is deeply entangled in academic culture and practices,” it claims. “Currently, discursive and material politics occurring at multiple scales support working practices that are highly uneven, driven by the logics of internationalisation and neoliberalism that are prevalent in higher education.”

Instead, it argues, that a wholesale cultural shift must be embraced if air travel is to be reduced.

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Recommendations includes moves to:

  • Improve virtual ways of working
  • Provide additional accommodations for virtual work
  • Normalise avoidance of flying
  • Make land-based travel the default
  • Include emissions in evaluations criteria
  • Allow travel budgets to be reallocated
  • Disassociate busyness from excellence

The suggestions follow both a literature review and a workshop involving 65 academics from 50 institutions across 19 countries.

Other practical steps institutions might take include using centralised booking systems to more effectively track travel, improving the collection of travel data, and adopting an emissions reporting standard to allow for comparison between universities.

Ambitious targets and the use of carbon budgets and booking systems alerts are also recommended.

“Covid-19 has shown that rapid and drastic changes are possible and working practices in higher education can be effectively detached from air travel,” concludes the study.

“The examples throughout this report [of how to reduce air travel] are neither exhaustive nor uncontentious, but demonstrate the depth and range of actions needed to decouple higher education from aeromobility.

“They also highlight that much of the debate on flying less is centred on research-intensive institutions in the global north, raising important concerns about fairness and ongoing inclusivity in higher education.

“It is therefore essential that we continue to reflect on how emissions can be reduced while also addressing inequalities in academic work.”

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