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On track for low-carbon academia

Written by Jesse Schrage
Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation, University of Bergen, Norway

Can climate friendly travelling keep-up with the speed of today’s academic journey?

The role of academia in the transition to low-carbon societies is invaluable. We produce the science, we communicate it, and in the process of doing so comes the question “should we also change academic practices accordingly?” Why should universities be exempt from the deep and rapid changes that we, as a scientific community, are urging the rest of society to make? 
The ideas of travelling and learning have been inextricably linked for centuries. From Christian scholars travelling to visit Muslim libraries, to today’s PhD student collecting data in remote locations, the academic journey has movement etched at its core. One speaks of learning as a journey, a process that can take us to places we couldn’t have imagined, places we never thought we’d reach. Physical travel also underpins this reality – participating first hand in a diversity of cultures, educations, or work practices is the hallmark of academic prestige. While professional nomadism is a precondition of how we think of academia today, is this association still relevant, and necessary, in an era of climate change?
Universities have their own set of contradictions. Attracting foreign students and researchers, engaging with international partners, and organising international conferences are all markers of success – but they might come as contradictory to their own climate and sustainability goals. Flight-related emissions hold a considerable share of a university’s carbon footprint. A recent study from the university of British Columbia estimated that emissions related to air travel accounted for more than two-thirds of the institution’s operations – rendering dreams of carbon neutrality difficult to circumvent. 
With the advent of commercial air travel, long distances have been contracted, the tempo has increased, and flying over hundreds of kilometers to gather data, present research, or strengthen relations has become a norm – with a high carbon price.  
From the research assistant to the rector, from the PhD to the professor, flying is sine qua non of academic culture, and universities have a strong role in maintaining carbon-intensive academic practices.
What space is there then for the climate-conscious academic?


In the 21st century, when fast travel options are available, cheaper, and arguably more convenient, choosing not to travel to an international conference can be associated with a refusal to further one’s career. “Why would you miss such a great opportunity ?”, “ But this is your chance to disseminate your knowledge and have an impact! ” The climate-conscious academic, it has been decided, practices a form of professional sluggishness .  How can we rethink this image in an attempt to align what we say with what we do?



A cornerstone of academic life is conferences. Academic conferences are both business and pleasure, both a respite from everyday routine and a professional obligation. While conferences offer a platform for discussions and opportunities for networking, they are also a tight spot for any climate-conscious institution. If slower travel could become part of the way in which we organise conferences, can we integrate them so as to make these academic meetings really worth their while?



In October this year, the Centre for Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen collaborated with the Norwegian train company, Vy, to offer a train ride for participants attending the Beyond Oil 2019 conference . The two-day event offered a space to discuss the deep and rapid changes necessary to transition to a sustainable society in all sectors of our economy, society and politics. In a bid to create an international conference of high quality and diversity, we invited researchers and practitioners from all over the world to contribute with papers and presentations. For European travellers, the intention of providing this train ride was to offer a low-carbon form of travelling to the conference venue while also allowing us to create an extra opportunity for interaction on the train.


The 7-hour journey from Oslo to Bergen allowed us to open a space for lectures, group discussions, and workshops around themes of low-carbon academic practices, embodied knowledge, and academic engagement. A total of 25 participants from diverse backgrounds joined the conference train. In between the train’s announcements, the unsteady footing, and the constraints of seating arrangements, the journey permitted what conferences seek to accomplish: knowledge exchange and productive academic engagement. 
In addition to providing this train ride, we explored the role that information, communication, and technology can play for remote paper presentations and discussions, we served only vegetarian food at the conference venue and organized the conference with a carbon budget perspective in mind. 
What were the results? Compared to the previous Beyond Oil conference, emissions were reduced by 50% through more careful planning and by providing alternative transport, food, and discussion platforms. 


While high-carbon academic practices have become a norm, they might not be as entrenched as one might think. This experienced allowed us to question how certain practices around organising conference have become institutionalised, and it allowed us to open a space to discuss what a conference could look like, if we acted in line with the science we produce.


We have always been travellers, but travelling has changed” explain two researchers from the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. In thinking of the challenge ahead, changing how we plan and prepare for conferences will be primordial; only a first step as we re-craft what academic engagement means in the 21st century.

While travelling and academic work are inextricably linked, we need to re-consider how the social connections, the discussions, and the engagement that conferences allow can be prioritized in light of the deep and rapid changes that we, as a society, need. Let us “not go where the path may lead”, as American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, let us “go instead where there is no path and leave a trail”. 

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