The ‘new normal’: Glasgow staff told to ditch flights for video conferencing

University grant funding will pay for video conferencing tech for partner institutions to encourage staff not to travel

The University of Glasgow has pledged to reduce carbon emissions from air travel by 60% by the start of the next decade – and has told academics to use online conferencing technology “as much as they can”.

Although many universities, including Glasgow, have set net-zero carbon emission targets for 2030 for onsite emissions, reducing scope three emissions – such as those associated with supply chains, air travel or off-campus activities – will prove harder.

In a sign of the oft-mentioned ‘new normal’ effect of pandemic working models, Glasgow University has asked academics to make the ‘pivot’ to online conferencing permanent in a bid to slash emissions by more than half in 10 years.

Before the pandemic, business travel accounted for 22% of the university annual carbon footprint. Most travel-related emissions related to international and domestic flights, the university said.

As the pandemic eases, and as we prepare as a city to host the COP26 meeting in November, we’re aware that opportunities to travel will start opening up once more. However, we’re committed to using the lessons we’ve learned over the last year to help us reduce our carbon footprint
– Dr David Duncan, chief operating officer

The university aims to shrink its pre-pandemic emissions – around 13,194-ton carbon dioxide equivalents (tCO2e) – to 5,597 tCO2e in a decade. To do this, emissions will need to fall by 7.5% per annum.

Staff should use video conferencing “as much as they can” and include details of flight-reduction measures in all applications for grant funding, the university said. Some grant money will be “set aside” to source high-quality virtual working hardware for external university partners to enable seamless video conferencing. Travel within the UK should be via train or bus as a “default”, even if the costs associated are higher than the comparative air ticket.

Prof Sally Wyke, deputy director of Glasgow University Institute of Health and Wellbeing, chaired the group that drew up the guidance.

“As a research-intensive university involved in a wide variety of projects around the world, we’re conscious that travel is, and will remain, an important part of the university’s everyday business.

“We’re also conscious that, in a post-pandemic world, our options to use technology like videoconferencing to streamline travel to only the most necessary trips are more extensive than they have ever been.

“Our priorities are changing, and we’re committed to helping staff change along with us by building awareness into every aspect of how the university works. Part of that change will involve helping the minority of staff who make up a majority of our travel emissions reduce their own footprints to ensure that others, like early-career researchers, will have the opportunity to make vital trips. We will also take steps to make sure that no staff members are disadvantaged by their efforts to reduce their travel.”

Dr David Duncan, chief operating officer, said the pandemic had made the university “rethink many of our usual ways of working”.

“As the pandemic eases, and as we prepare as a city to host the COP26 meeting in November, we’re aware that opportunities to travel will start opening up once more. However, we’re committed to using the lessons we’ve learned over the last year to help us reduce our carbon footprint and reach our ambitious goal of achieving net-zero by 2030.”

A report released last month by EAUC, Universities UK, Guild HE and the Association of Colleges told the higher education sector to aim for net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Among the recommendations, senior leaders were told to “review opportunities and challenges in aligning international student recruitment” alongside commitments to reduce air travel. Increasing international student recruitment is enshrined in the government strategy for higher education, and overseas learners are a crucial contributor to institutional fiscal sustainability – but several annual flights per year per student will create significant carbon emissions.


Read more: What we learned from the EAUC virtual global climate conference

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