Should academics fly at all?

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 29, 2023

Earlier this week, I was at a meeting to discuss the question whether my university should cut its ties with the fossil industry, or else impose additional conditions on working with partners from fossil industries. There was quite some agreement that the university should think hard about spelling out and endorsing a moral framework, and based on those values and moral principles work out what (if any) forms of collaboration would remain legitimate in the future. This led our vice-chancellor to ask the question what else such moral framework would imply for university staff. “Should we perhaps completely stop flying?”, he asked.

And then there is, once again, a very depressing IPCC report and we must radically change our modes of production and consumption if we want to leave our children (and our older selves) a planet that will remain safe for the human species. And it’s not just about the future, but about the present: urgent action is needed to lower the number of the deadly climate-related events that we have seen over the last years, from increases in wildfires to deadly floodings – that led poor people, who have made almost zero contribution to this problem, lose their livelihoods, and many simply died. So to me it seems obvious that what we change in response to climate change is a very urgent moral question.

Hence the question: Do academics fly too much? Should we simply stop flying at all?

I’m using academics here in the sense of people employed as professors, postdocs, and PhD candidates at universities or other institutes of higher education and research. And it concerns flying for academic activities – most often, presenting one’s research at conferences or as an invited speaker to a seminar series or workshop. Of course, many of the thoughts that follow will apply to other professions too, but since this makes it easier for me to write down my worries, let me start there.

During the pandemic, it was easy: we couldn’t fly. I missed travelling. Frankly, I missed it a lot: I missed the interaction with other scholars working on related questions; I missed the inspiration from meeting the smart and creative people that one tends to meet on such occasions; I missed learning about the new work other people are doing; I missed the feedback on the work that I presented; I missed the intellectual joy of long conversations over breakfasts, lunches and dinners on matters academic, political, and otherwise; I missed the strengthening of my professional networks that travel brought me; I missed seeing friends far away; I missed the adventure of travelling to places; I missed the intellectual energy and inspiration such a trip could give.

Some have argued that the ‘normalisation’ of videoconferencing has taken away any reasons for travel. I love the new habits that are created by zoom, teams, and the other programs – the international paper discussions, seminars, reading groups. But no matter how wonderful these online events can be, many of the good things that come with travelling to workshops and conferences are not part of online events. Perhaps, some might argue, that is simply the price we should pay to stay within our fair emissions budget?

There are other reasons why academics want to travel long-distance by plane. Many want to travel because they feel they need to in order to build their scholarly networks or to strengthen their CV – in short, they feel they need it for their career. I’ve heard some colleagues say that this should be a reason why only junior scholars should be allowed to fly. This strikes me as self-defeating, since some of the most interesting conversations I had when I was a PhD student or postdoc was with older, more senior scholars who came to give a talk – I’ve always felt there is much I could learn from them too. Academia is international, and if we could only interact with our local peers that would be a loss. Moreover, I suspect that there are some very senior scholars who receive a lot of overseas keynote invitations: should they always decline invitations if those would require them to fly? What reasoning could they use that is genuinely sound, and not a form of self-deception?

There is no emissions-free alternative to flying long-distance, which makes travel-by-airplane a scarce good. There are, presumably, many more academics who would like to fly many more miles than would be good for the habitability of the planet. Should we have an open discussion about how much we should allow ourselves to fly, just like we have discussions about how much we should referee? Or should we just leave this, loosely libertarian and without causing offence to anyone, to everyone’s own judgement without a public discussion?

Once the discussion kicks off, there are various arguments one encounters. Here are a few of claims I’ve heard from others or considered myself, when trying to justify why travel by airplane is fine:

(1) It doesn’t make a difference at all whether I fly or not. It’s inconsequential to addressing climate change.
(2) I’ve been invited oversees as a keynote, so if I decline, the organisors invite someone else, and it doesn’t make a difference to total emissions.
(3) It’s bad that I fly, but I’m going to find a golden offset mechanism, and compensate the full damage that my flying does to planet – perhaps 150%.
(4) I wish I wouldn’t have to fly, but I must fly for my job; I commute by airplane. Yes, I could find a non-academic job closer by, but it’s not reasonable to ask from me that I give up my profession for the sake of lowering my emissions.
(5) Why would I have to stop flying if my North-American colleagues on average fly so much more than we [Europeans, Africans, Latin-Americans, …] do? When they limit their flying, I’ll limit mine too.
(6a) Why would I have to stop flying (whether for work or privately) if the really big pollutors, for example in Big Oil companies, keep earning millions destroying the earth? Why should I worry about adding one or two ton CO2 if the biggest polluters are not setting the right example?
(6b) Why should we stop flying if the number of superrich people flying in their ultrapolluting private jets keep flying? Let them stop flying first, and then we can talk about ordinary folks who should stop flying.
(7) I eat vegan, have no car, have put my savings in solar energy production, and have no kids. Given all this, I think I should be morally permitted to fly.
(8) I’m on the academic job market and need to go to any conference I can afford to travel to, in order to improve my chances at landing a job.
(9) I’ve joined Extinction Rebellion (or another group) and I’m making my contribution to addressing climate change there. We should only talk about political activism, not about consumption, such as flying.
(10) I’m only flying if I think it makes a difference not just to myself, but also that the trip is worthwhile for enough others too. And once I decide to fly, I try to get the most out of it in terms of contributing, e.g. by offering to give another talk in a nearby place.
(11) …
(12) … and so on, and so forth.

While I think some of these claims are dubious, others are less obviously so. But which ones are acceptable as reasons in our own deliberations whether to fly or not, and which ones should we reject? How do (or should) we deliberate with ourselves on those matters?

I’ve recently accepted an overseas invitation, and while the climate cost was immediately on the forefront of my mind, after some agonizing claims #2 and #10 made me, eventually, think it was OK to accept the invitation. But was it? I am not just, because of my love for academic travelling, simply fooling myself? And are those of us who keep travelling by plane not fooling ourselves most of the time? Or can a balance be struck without giving up on travel by plane completely?

So, friends, over to you. Given me claims/reasons #11, #12, etc. that you’ve had in your own mind, or heard, and let me know what you think of all these claims. And if anyone has a proposal for a decision procedure we should endorse, across academia globally, on when we are still permitted to fly (if at all), then let us know. Because, as you can can see, I have more questions than answers.

PS: Please be respectful of others’ point of views and arguments; many of us are unsure about these matters and trying to find out what we should think and do. If you’ve thought about this long and hard and made up your mind, good for you, but give others the time too to find out what they decide to believe. I’ll filter out rude or hateful comments.

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CP Norris 03.29.23 at 3:22 pm

It’s bad that I fly, but I’m going to find a golden offset mechanism, and compensate the full damage that my flying does to planet – perhaps 150%.

My take here is that if your employer or some fellowship or scholarship is paying for the flight, they should also pay for this offset. (As they should be paying a carbon tax.) And if they can’t afford the offset, they can’t afford the flight.


Sander 03.29.23 at 3:36 pm

Great post and discussion Ingrid. What I hear sometimes is simply defeatism, or adaptationism: Cutting global emissions just won’t happen in time and to a sufficient extent. Me flying is significant, it does add to emissions (therefore different from 1), but seeing we’ll have to adapt to a 2-3 degree warmer world anyway, I may as well fly


Martin Holterman 03.29.23 at 3:48 pm

This is interesting. I have no easy answers either.

What immediately came to mind, but what I think you haven’t explicitly addressed, is the counterfactual. In a world where academics don’t fly, they don’t just Zoom into meetings, they also take the train, or bundle a bunch of events into a single trip. But that means that academics in the Global North are at an advantage, because you’d essentially get a North American series of events, where North American academics attend in person and everyone else Zooms in, and a European series. An academic based in the Netherlands like you (and like me, once upon a time) can easily take the train to London, Madrid, Berlin, or Stockholm, but what can an academic based in South America or Africa do?


Liesbeth 03.29.23 at 3:49 pm

Hi Ingrid,

Thanks for starting this discussion here. I was wondering: could you also include a list of the arguments that support the decision to not fly? From a normative perspective, which considerations come into play? Reducing harm to others/the environment. Be/practice the change you want to see. Others?

Thanks! Liesbeth


Chris Armstrong 03.29.23 at 3:52 pm

I hear those kinds of reasons too, but I don’t think any of them really hold up. (7) may once have been plausible, but we are in emergency territory now. (2) is interesting, but there are good responses (you can offer to participate online; if they refuse, you can suggest they rethink, going forward; anyway, we do not standardly think it is permissible to cause harm just on the basis that if you don’t, someone else will, etc). So I think minimising flying is probably required at this point. Of course, the question is what minimising means. I can count on one hand the number of times in my life I have flown more than two hours to do an academic event. I may do so again, but it would probably be a once-in-a-decade thing at this point. But I do tend to fly within Europe a couple of times a year, and maybe I am just kidding myself that this is sustainable.

I do think we have to beware the thought that flying to e.g. the US is simply necessary, e.g. for career progression. Maybe I have harmed my own career by never having given a talk in the US (!), with the networking opportunities that implies. But overall I think I’ve done okay, and the less you fly, the more time you have to write, which all things considered suits me. But I can see how other people would think differently – for some people, maybe discussing things in person with key individuals in their debates is really important for the development of their ideas. For me, reading widely is the thing that is key, and I can do that anywhere.

A possible argument (11), though. As a scholar of global justice (amongst other things), I feel a lot of unease about doing talks more or less exclusively within Europe. Sure, I can do a zoom talk to China. But maybe that’s not a good substitute for engaging properly with academics who work there. I don’t know the answer to this one – it troubles me.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.29.23 at 3:57 pm

@Liesbeth – thanks for asking for changing the perspective!

I take the argument that we should move our emissions to as close to zero as possible as widely known (and I’ve discussed not using more than our fair share of emissions on this blog before) – in fact, I think the default should be that we should not fly except. So the question is whether there is any form of the except.

The question whether we reduce harm to others/the environment by not flying is disputed in the academic literature – for reasons such as #1, or it not being consequential for reasons #2 or #3.


Doug Bamford 03.29.23 at 3:57 pm

I’ve been through this thought-process recently, and saw it more of a balancing of considerations than there being a single argument either way.
This despite my increasing radicalisation against the fossil fuel industry!
Also, apparently the calculations of the impact of flying doesn’t include the water vapour contrails that can also have a very high climatic impact.

I would of course prefer to travel by land than plane where possible, but I found there was no way to get to Oslo for a conference and get back in time for an event in Oxford. Plus the expense was much greater due to the need to stay over in European cities overnight. Cost was a consideration because I am funding the trip myself, plus the extra time away from home.
The conference organiser(s) made it clear that the conference was to be in person, though there was mention of the possibility for hybrid if absolutely necessary.
So I decided to fly for the first time in quite a few years.
I will of course offset the emissions (also at personal expense), though I’m well aware of the criticisms of reliance on offsetting.
I would certainly hope that in the future there will be better rail connections which would allow a sleeper-train trip to Oslo. That wouldn’t help with intercontinental travel, however.
I was the only hybrid speaker at a Mexico-based conference recently and felt I was missing out, but didn’t feel I could have justified that trip.

Overall, I think the default should be to avoid flying where there is an alternative, and that those funding travel should support more expensive alternatives where these are much lower-emission, and also fund offsetting of all flights. However, for now I clearly can’t rule out the occasional flight, given my recent decision to fly.


Ebenezer Scrooge 03.29.23 at 4:15 pm

Things are a bit different for some experimentalists and other scholars who do field work away from their institution. They may have a stronger case for flying than other scholars. The experimentalists may need a special machine not at home; the field workers need their (physical) field. I’d say that this kind of flying is in a category of its own. Of course, experimentalists and field workers have their own conferences, which don’t differ from the conferences of other scholars.
(I use the word “scholar” rather than “academic.” For Ingrid’s purposes, I don’t see any distinction between academic scholars and non-academic scholars such as think tankers, government research scientists, and the like.)


engels 03.29.23 at 4:27 pm

That flying is justified as necessary for career progression seems like a good example of how meritocratic competition harms everyone, including those who don’t/can’t even take part in the race.


Marco 03.29.23 at 4:29 pm

Hi Ingrid,

As I read this, being a hobbyist academic who is not dependent on having to fly to venues, first thought was: hey, this is again a typical elitist apologetic discourse. Yes it is important that others stop flying, and my purpose is exceptional to be exempted from the moral obligation. But knowing your work, I reread your reasons for face value. Coming to the conclusion that it is in fact unfair to leave such a consequential decision to an individual. “Een beter milieu begint bij jezelf” is utter crap when the market forces people into behaviour that they don’t want to choose for.

Also I remembered a LinkedIn post by Tom van Vuren from the UK who referred to a paper by Jillian Anable Which in fact categorises many of your remarks as excuses to not take action.


Ingrid Robeyns 03.29.23 at 4:44 pm

Engels @ 9 – the question is also to what extent it really is or whether it is also a perception (this is a genuine, not a rethorical question!), and if it is genuine so, whether it is a global phenomenon, or only in some countries/regions. Either way, this is then an institutional feature that is deeply unjust for multiple reasons, so we can already agree that search committees should no longer look at whether people have attended conference far away, and should count giving invited talks online on the same basis as talks where you travel long-distance.


John 03.29.23 at 5:36 pm

I think the academy and its scholars, laborers, governors, boards, and alumni should really be thinking first about how they heat and cool their buildings. That’s something that you could really organize around, and then help the researchers find better ways to fly.

Finally, I really believe the solution to the climate crisis is both personal and political, and academics have a super important role of teaching the public about how transition away from fossil fuels in order to put pressure on elected officials and/or win elections. That’s your strongest leverage, I think.


Charlie W 03.29.23 at 5:53 pm

You should not stop flying. Well, maybe stop flying for short trips that can be done by train. Flying is a low percentage of CO2 emissions, and may end up being one of the last sectors to decarbonise. When it does decarbonise, it may be as a form of energy storage: surplus renewables power used to make synthetic fuels.

You should use a position of influence to consistently promote all of the following:

(1) Decarbonised power generation;
(2) Decarbonisation of ground transportation;
(3) Low GHG agriculture;
(4) The construction of compact, walkable settlements and high performance, low embodied carbon buildings;
(5) The retrofit of low performance buildings;
(6) Reduction in car dependency.

None of this is all that much about lifestyle. Walkable settlements and less meat consumption, maybe.


Anon 03.29.23 at 6:10 pm

Flying accounts for less than 2%(!) of carbon omissions. We should not be hand-wringing over the carbon omissions of scientists trying to collaborate and learn. If anything, we need more science right now, not to have it (in any way) hindered. Pressuring institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies and to take a stronger stand on going renewable would do FAR more. This is a lot of energy on painting the fence while the house is on fire.


Charlie W 03.29.23 at 6:13 pm

Just to work through my thinking a bit more: it is very much along the lines of a benefits / harms calculus. Academics have large influence, and have leadership (albeit they specialise) in all of the areas in that list. So academic air travel is beneficial when it’s used to influence. The direct harm (CO2 flying emissions) is quite small.

There’s a second thought – I haven’t considered it deeply! – which is to do with moral example. The surrender of flying – if done by everyone – would be a pretty big harm. Our lives would go better if we retained the practice of flying (although we should also try to decarbonise it). So academics shouldn’t mis-use their influence (such as it is) by encouraging others not to fly through not flying themselves.


TF79 03.29.23 at 6:25 pm

Suppose that a) it was possible to precisely calculate the harms done by CO2 emissions from a flight in euro/flight terms, and b) that damage in euro/flight terms was included in the fare – would that change how you think about the question?


Julie H 03.29.23 at 7:09 pm

Thanks Ingrid. I feel strongly that we need to have this conversation, across our academic departments, and with those controlling our promotion and reward structures. And with our students? AHAH…but here’s another problem. I work in a small University in the UK with a high proportion of overseas students. A local expert has estimated that staff/postgrads make less than 20% of the flights associated with our University. The rest of the flying is done by students. Another twist to think about.

We MUST talk to our communities, we MUST make some changes. Considering covid as ‘practise’ for leaving a lighter footprint, I’m currently aiming at 1 flight per year for business purposes. But I have a permanent job, in an elite institution, and am in a fairly senior position. People like me have least to lose and should lead the way in making changes.

Our profession is based on knowledge and evidence. We understand the evidence. If not us, who? If not now, when?


Peter Dorman 03.29.23 at 7:30 pm

Let’s begin with one good reason to fly as little as possible. If there is ever serious, concerted action to mitigate climate change (which by my criteria there hasn’t been yet), flying will quickly get a lot more expensive, and individuals and institutions will have to adapt to a less airborne world. Those who got the jump by pre-adapting before legislative clampdowns on fossil fuel use will be able to make the transition faster and better.

A weaker argument for less flying is that fossil fuel companies are not the only ones that lobby, publicly or privately, against aggressive mitigation; airline companies have also been at the forefront. (In my book, I tell the story of the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act, signed by Obama, in which the US airlines were key players.) Boycotting them makes as much sense as boycotting the carbon energy producers. If I thought boycotts would get us where we need to go, I’d upgrade this argument to “strong”.

On the other side of the ledger:

Counterargument #2 is an example of the weakness of carbon accounting at the individual level, which gets a lot of discussion in my book (Ch 3). The reality is that our choices affect the choices of others, sometimes extensively and unpredictably, and the direct consequences we claim for what we choose to do or not do can be just a small piece of a much larger set of outcomes. This isn’t to say that these broader effects (scope 3-ish) completely negate the direct ones, but we should be modest about how much we can achieve on our own, and how much we can know about what we can achieve.

I also agree with @13 that reduction in air travel will not be sudden and drastic in a serious climate mitigation program, and that overdoing it now because it’s a poster child for our carbon-centric economy doesn’t make sense. This is reinforced by @5’s point that academic air travel (with subsidies) can promote egalitarian exchange between the global north and global south.

On a psychological level, I appreciate the motivation that gets people to question their personal and institutional consumption habits, but this really is an issue that can only be resolved through massive collective action. We can throw ourselves into only so many battles, and the one that matters most is getting our governments to enforce carbon budgets. Worse, emphasis on personal action can strike the noncommitted majority as judgmental and elitist, and we really, really need to reach and enlist them.


John Q 03.29.23 at 8:18 pm

I’m planning my first international flight since the onset of the pandemic. I’ll go to three conferences in Europe and work in person with a colleague. Given the time zone difference, the alternative is not to take part in the conferences at all (except maybe Zooming in for a presentation), and, with my colleague, to stick to alternating emails, and occasional zooms.

I generally refuse invitations to travel within Australia, partly for climate reasons, partly because I still attempt to minimise time spent indoors with lots of other people and partly because travel wastes a lot of time.

As others have said, it doesn’t make sense to focus exclusively on one source of emissions. The cost to me of foregoing this trip, per unit of emissions saved, is much higher than that of reducing my electricity consumption at home, or cutting down on driving.

Ultimately, as Peter Dorman says, we need collective action. But there is no harm in living the changes you want to see arising from that action. In all of this, I am acting as if we had a carbon price that effectively captured the cost of emissions. I can”t reduce emissions to zero, but I can make reductions in activities where costs exceed benefits.


Thomas 03.29.23 at 8:55 pm

I defend some version of your (3) here In particular, I defend the claim that if you offset your carbon emissions, then you don’t wrong those people affected by climate change in the future (even though your emissions will have, ever so slightly, increased the risk that they would have been so-affected).


Matt 03.30.23 at 12:47 am

My views here are similar to John Q’s, to a large degree, but I’d add (to some others above) that the situation for different people make the opportunity costs very different. For people in many parts of N. America or, even more, Europe, it’s not too hard to have an intellectual community that you can be in close contact with via ground transport, and even things like zoom are easier because of being in the same or close time zones. For others, this is less so. Australia, New Zealand, and some other places are extreme examples, but similar things will apply to people in, say, Manhattan Kansas or the like, where there is not a huge intellectual community close by or within driving distance.

Other factors are relevant, too. So, when I worked in Melbourne, there was a fairly good community for me there because of the fact that there were six or so univiersities in the city, and so a good number of people working on similar enough things. Where I live now (the Gold Coast), there is no philosophy department in the city, and one other law school and philosophy department about one hour away. At my own university I have only one colleague with semi-similar research interests. I’ve been happy to take part in events over zoom in Australia rather than fly down, especially when it’s a one day event but this would require at the minimum two days of travel, but this just isn’t plausible for a signficant conference outside of Australia. I don’t fly abroad often, not least because I don’t have the travel funds or time for it, but if I didn’t do it at all, it would be a much, much greater sacrifice for my career than for people in Europe or large parts of N. America. Given that, and that I can make contributions in other ways, to say simply “academics should not fly” seems clearly over-broad to me.


Gareth Richard Samuel Wilson 03.30.23 at 4:08 am

“it’s not just about the future, but about the present: urgent action is needed to lower the number of the deadly climate-related events that we have seen over the last years, from increases in wildfires to deadly floodings”

If all powered flight everywhere on Earth stopped immediately, how soon would you expect to see the effects of this on deadly climate-related events?


Gus 03.30.23 at 6:14 am

I think the question is framed poorly, because it’s (effectively) weighing the morality of flying versus the morality of the gained benefit from flying. The problem with this is that it’s fuzzy, and so we end up saying things like “I recycle my coffee cups, so flying is ok”

Instead, I’d suggest a per-capita carbon budget approach. I can’t find the reference now, but I think I saw that 2tCO2/person/year is an amount that is compatible with climate goals (eg. 2 degC). Importantly, this would include the embodied carbon in everything we buy (eg. solar panels, shoes, food, medical care, liquid fuel, books, etc). Then it becomes a trade off: “I’ll take a 5-hour each-way flight but it means I’ll buy no new clothes/shoes, and will cycle to work right through winter. I’ll also eat low-food-miles vegan, which means lots of turnip and potato in winter” (I’ve just made this up — I don’t know the equivalency off-hand — this is the sort of thing that a carbon tax helps with, but really we’re at the point where we need actual carbon rationing, at least in rich countries)


Chris Bertram 03.30.23 at 7:00 am

I agree that we should at least minimize flying. I’ve not been on a plane myself since January 2020 and I’m currently the holder of a Global 3-month Interrail Pass. One thing that has revealed to me is how bad the rail connections are between some European countries and how the anti-competitive and anti-cooperative instincts of some of the national rail companies (SNCF being the worst) stand in the way of things getting better. There’s currently just one fast (and expensive route) from Italy to France alongside some very slow and inconvenient ones (Tortona to Agde took me from 8.26 am to 11.24 pm, though admittedly there were post-strike cancellations to juggle too). EU regulatators need to act to bring the cost of rail down and promote better cross-European routes, otherwise the plan wins by default (and adminstrators with tight budgets will insist on it).


Metonym 03.30.23 at 8:48 am

Well academics are people, and last time I checked you lived on the same planet that I do, and that planet and all of its life was staring down climate catastrophe … ????

People who are running online conferences and getting them setup as fixtures to look forward to in their disciplines are doing necessary work future proofing conferences. Another framing for the early phase of the pandemic is that it was the first major climate event that prevented travel: there will be many others in the coming years.

You will be prevented again from travelling freely, and I think you should act accordingly.


Matt 03.30.23 at 9:59 am

The problem with this is that it’s fuzzy, and so we end up saying things like “I recycle my coffee cups, so flying is ok”

Thank goodness no one here is saying this, and I seriously doubt that many academics (the target for discussion in the post) say anything so dumb. (It’s a big world with lots of academics, so may there are a few! But it’s obviously an unusual take for the group.) It’s much easier to have a useful discussion when you avoid things like this.


Tm 03.30.23 at 10:34 am

Because the academic job market is global, many academics live and work far away from their home countries. They often have no choice but to fly ion order to see their families. My spouse and I have flown regularly when living in North America. Now that we are back in Europe, heaven thanks, we are determined not to fly any more.


Tim Worstall 03.30.23 at 11:31 am

To pick up from JQ:

“I can”t reduce emissions to zero, but I can make reductions in activities where costs exceed benefits.”

But that’s the entire argument in a nutshell. We want to be doing those activities where the benefits of the emissions are larger than the costs of the emissions. We do not want to be doing those where costs are greater than benefits.

For everything.

Net zero by 2050 or whatever the target is might well not meet that standard.


Dave 03.30.23 at 1:30 pm

The good reasons for academics to fly in a professional capacity are not very good, imo


Kenny Easwaran 03.30.23 at 3:15 pm

Much of this framing is around the individual decision, but I think it’s also important to consider these questions from the systemic point of view.

Academia includes educational activities and research activities. Both educational and research activities are currently done through a mix of in-person and remote activity. In-person activities take place at offices, labs, and classrooms at geographically dispersed universities, and also at conference sites. It is nearly universally acknowledged that for both teaching and research, there are some benefits that are acquired in-person that cannot be had remote, but that some amount of work can in fact be done remote. (For instance, journals have been run almost entirely remotely for decades now.)

If we think these in-person activities are valuable (classroom time, time in the lab, in-depth conversations at conferences) then one question is whether they are valuable enough to justify the emissions that they cause, and another question is whether the in-person locations can be re-organized to reduce emissions.

We could stop traveling to conferences and reduce emissions that way, but we could equally stop having in-person classes and all live at bigger conference sites and reduce emissions that way. The fact that no one suggests this seems like it is indicative of something important, but it’s not totally clear to me what.

I think the thing that is clearest is that we can reduce conference emissions by holding conferences only in cities with major air hubs (since the number of takeoffs and landings is one of the biggest controllable factors in air emissions), except when the conferences are largely local in scope.


Matt Nolan 03.30.23 at 3:20 pm

Great piece! I wondered if your comment ‘I am not just, because of my love for academic travelling, simply fooling myself?’ suggests that you perhaps already know what you should do.

I’d suggest that (2) is perhaps a little weak, as you could ask the conference organisers if you can give the keynote by video link – they may say no, but they will better appreciate the concerns and if enough people do this then may revise their future approach to conferences.

Perhaps a counter-argument to (10) is that as an academic you are a role model to a wide community (to students, peers, any colleagues outside academia, and the wider public) and if you choose not to fly then your actions can be amplified by people seeing the choices you make.


M Caswell 03.30.23 at 8:24 pm

My ‘academic’ life has rendered me too poor to fly. Problem solved!


John Q 03.30.23 at 11:06 pm

Gus @23 “Food miles” illustrate the complexities of the issue. As long as you stick to turnips and potatoes, you are probably reducing emissions relative to a more varied diet. But if you buy vegetables produced locally in heated greenhouses, you are almost certainly generating more emissions than if you buy them flown in from Spain or Morocco (though I understand this may no longer be an option for UK consumers).


Onkelbob 03.30.23 at 11:11 pm

Oh yes they should stop flying, everyone should stop flying. Everyone should also stop eating meat, driving gas guzzlers and procreating. Of course that is absurd and I always wonder when absolutes are seen as a panacea or solution, because they rarely solve problems without creating more difficulties. Not an accusation that the OP was presenting this as an absolute, just $.02 on the value of such positions.
Academia has many problems: an inability to choose competent leadership or identify promising candidates with an irresistible urge to hold on to the old and stale while ignoring novel improvements immediately comes to mind. Flying too much? Nah, it’s better when the chair or dean(s) are out of town and touch (as if they were ever in touch) things work better then.
If academia wants to solve something – solve the Gordon Gee problem. Prevent grifters and charlatans from being richly rewarded with positions of power and influence. That may not bring about a better climate but it will improve the future prospects of humanity.


seth godin 03.31.23 at 2:17 am

Not flying professionally is contagious. I haven’t flown for work in more than two years, and more and more conference organizers are unsurprised, and are shifting what they do all day. Not just because I don’t fly, but because others are starting to stop as well.

The multiplier effect is real.


Gus 03.31.23 at 5:37 am

John Q @33, That’s a good point, and why I think we need a form of carbon rationing — the accounting is just too slippery otherwise. Perhaps something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s “carbon coin” is what we need?

Matt @26, That may have been an ill-chosen example on my part. I was trying to convey the idea that we end up falsely establishing an equivalence between one set of badly-characterised emissions and another set of badly-characterised emissions (which, being human, usually ends up suiting our pre-determined conclusion). I agree that most people who care about this issue would fail more subtly than in my example.


Moz in Oz 03.31.23 at 8:18 am

The IPCC says remarkably clearly that we have to cut emissions to zero wherever that’s possible. Not where it’s convenient, easy, cheap, popular or profitable, but wherever it’s possible.

Covid proved that we can survive much, much less flying than “normal”, but the IPCC has shown that we can’t survive “normal” levels. The “normal” trajectory is large parts of the tropics uninhabitable, sea level 10-50m higher than now, billions of deaths from climate catastrophe.

To me that’s the context for “just a few more flights, I’ll stop soon I promise”. If we were talking about serial killers, or even drunk drivers, I think very few of you would accept “I’ll try to cut back”. But because it’s statistical slaughter, mostly of the unborn, a lot of you say “balancing my personal benefit against costs faced by others is difficult”.

Given the scale of the personal change required I think not flying is a small, easy change to make. This isn’t “no more cars” let alone “stop eating meat”, or “no more single family homes”.

At a systematic level, compared to “all steel refining will use renewable energy and green hydrogen” the end of non-emergency flying is trivial. Transitioning to zero-emissions concrete while simultaneously rebuilding Rotterdam to cope with even a 10m sea level rise is going to be very difficult… can we try to do them one at a time? Please?


David in Tokyo 03.31.23 at 9:46 am

Matt said “Thank goodness no one here is saying this,”

Hmm. It seems to me that anything other than “We shouldn’t fly, period.” Is functionally equivalent to “My recycling justifies my flying.”.

Just an obstinate geezer, who hasn’t flown since 2016, and has never purchased a car. (Of course, my once-every-five-year Tokyo-Boston-Tokyo trips were pretty evil. I can’t imagine doing that again .)

I was hoping that Covid (which was largely brought to you by airplane) would have clued people in to the point that the amount of flying we do is incredibly insane. But no such luck. Sigh.

(At the back of my mind here is the idea that flying, despite not being an enormous part of the CO2 problem, is still the single most climate-destroying thing an individual can do, should be seen as not just the problem it is, but as a measure of our willingness to recognize and start to fix the overall problem.)


Trader Joe 03.31.23 at 12:16 pm

Seems like this is an attempt to conflate a moral argument with an economic problem.

Just because one university worth of academics isn’t flying – not a single scheduled jet doesn’t take off as planned. Even if every university did the same, the impact on the daily number of flights would be negligible because the seats not taken by academics would be sold instead to business or leisure travelers. Supply and demand isn’t repealed unless you can get demand to zero.

There is little that stops the jets from flying. Even if you tax the travel, those that can afford will still pay and air travel becomes even more a privilege of wealth than it already is. The simple fact is – flight is a tremendous value, far cheaper than any ground travel once the ground distance is much more than 3 or 4 hours. Few people fly completely frivolously – time, budget and need are routinely weighed and adding climate to checklist is adding little to the scale….maybe it should, but that the moral argument, not one based on utility.

There is high value in connecting people, cultures and ideas for a multitude of purposes – business, pleasure and academic. If you don’t want to fly that’s your choice – I’ll welcome the empty middle seat next to me.


Phil H 03.31.23 at 12:42 pm

I feel like the power of consumerism has been oversold. Climate change to me feels like a problem that fundamentally can’t be solved by individuals making decisions to fly or not to fly. It could be solved by whole countries making a decision not to fly, through a democratic and legislative process. Or it could be solved through technological change. But I don’t see any path to changing our climate trajectory through personal action.
(I know this argument can be used in selfish and hypocritical ways, and is suspicious for that reason; you’ll just have to decide whether you’re willing to believe that it’s made in good faith here.)
So, a move like a large chunk of academia going flightless could potentially have an impact, in terms of total flights foregone and example set to others. Any small action, on the level of an individual or a single university, may be admirable in intent, but wouldn’t actually make any difference, I don’t think. Therefore there is no need to feel guilty about not taking those kinds of actions (e.g. voluntarily giving up speaking opportunities). They are supererogatory and symbolic only.


Jonathan 03.31.23 at 12:54 pm

I think a question has to be what happens if long distance flight has to go away completely? It’s not clear that zero-emission transoceanic flight will be technologically or economically feasible before zero-emission goals need to be met. If so, are you building institutions and systems that can survive a world where any long-distance travel takes much longer and is therefore much less common and more difficult to fit into the academic calendar?


engels 03.31.23 at 1:02 pm

Even if every university did the same, the impact on the daily number of flights would be negligible because the seats not taken by academics would be sold instead to business or leisure travelers.

Iana financial trader but I don’t think markets work like this.


Zamfir 03.31.23 at 3:28 pm

Last week, I decided to add a little pump to a factory, for presumably good reasons. That pump will, indirectly, generate CO2 comparable to a transatlantic trip every week or so. I feel responsible to keep such emissions low, but I don’t ever consider them my personal emissions. I see them as embedded emissions of the end-consumer of our products.

The same when I fly for work – I see it as emissions in service of the work to be done. They must be justified by being helpful to that work, and by the work itself being valuable to people on the outside. From that perspective, the OP looks strangely personal. A lot of the points are written as if academics are the main beneficiary of conferences. It’s an inspiring or enjoyable activity, or for career progression.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed, a side effect of working in a heavily polluting industry. That might be a useful frame though, as we’re discussing pollution from the academic industry.


NomadUK 03.31.23 at 4:49 pm

It’s always aeroplanes versus boats. Nobody ever seems to mention airships, which were being pushed by Arthur C Clarke, for crying out loud. Always seemed like a fine idea to me.


Thomas 03.31.23 at 5:05 pm

This isn’t, I don’t think, the right way to think about it: “To me that’s the context for “just a few more flights, I’ll stop soon I promise”. If we were talking about serial killers, or even drunk drivers, I think very few of you would accept “I’ll try to cut back”. But because it’s statistical slaughter, mostly of the unborn, a lot of you say “balancing my personal benefit against costs faced by others is difficult”.” By flying, you aren’t harming anyone, you’re merely increasing the risks that they will be harmed (by climate change, as it were). That’s different and different moral rules apply. Exactly what those rules are, is a tricky question (see the paper linked above in comment 20, for my view), but what isn’t tricky, I don’t think, is that we can’t move immediately from claims and conclusions about serial killers to claims and conclusions about flying.


hix 03.31.23 at 9:57 pm

Extreme rules and/or indivdiual moral norms in a society at large that is completly out of sync with them, with huge SUVs and brown coal powar plants as acceptable normal will not get to any good. So please no absolute flying ban, that will only serve as a nice right wing tabloid headline and no other good. In between the extremes of plane commutes and absolut bans, good luck debating. What is the matter with plane commuting academics? Used to have one Prof at a rather low status University who did teach there and at Iran for a while within the same weak flying back and forth. Wunder how that worked out even financially.


engels 04.02.23 at 10:35 am

Any small action, on the level of an individual or a single university, may be admirable in intent, but wouldn’t actually make any difference, I don’t think.

Do you feel the same way about donating money for famine relief, or not repeating widespread lies?


Harry 04.02.23 at 4:43 pm

“Any small action, on the level of an individual or a single university, may be admirable in intent, but wouldn’t actually make any difference, I don’t think.”

“Do you feel the same way about donating money for famine relief, or not repeating widespread lies?”

I was wondering about this. Thing about contributing to famine relief is that it has a genuine incremental effect (actual lives get saved by the actual action that you perform), whereas that isn’t the case (or, I suppose, almost certainly isn’t the case) when it comes to refraining from generating greenhouse gasses.

Of course, you shouldn’t repeat widespread lies, even in those cases (which presumably are common) in which your repeating them doesn’t actually have even a small negative effect. Then again, repeating widespread lies has no benefit to the person doing it (normally) whereas not contributing to famine relief, and flying, do.


engels 04.02.23 at 8:10 pm

If Dr Evil personally dumped so much methane in the atmosphere that the temperature increased by X degrees and Y thousand people died in weather events that almost certainly would not have occurred otherwise then I think he’d be responsible for those deaths. I don’t see why that shouldn’t also be true at much smaller scales. Unless someone’s flying a private jet I suppose the share of excess deaths attributable to them will be less than one and I know there’sa lot of uncertainty involved but it still seems like a serious form of culpability to me. (Just thinking aloud here: I think there was someone upthread who said they’d thought about this more.)


engels 04.02.23 at 8:19 pm

Iirc Oxfam etc tend to greatly oversimplify the concrete effects/uses of small donations for the purposes of campaigning (understandably enough).


Michael Cain 04.02.23 at 11:07 pm

1) At some price, jet fuel from non-fossil sources is possible. My guess is that the price is too high for casual intercontinental air travel for the masses, but not for professional academic travel.

2) I started doing research on multi-person multi-media real-time communications over IP protocols in 1993. I was particularly interested in the sorts of additional protocols necessary to come closer to reproducing assorted settings, with a academic conference one of the truly difficult ones. (Legal at the big US telecoms where I worked wouldn’t let me publish). Multicast was a necessity in most cases. My biggest regret in my technical career was I couldn’t convince those same telecoms to include multicast in their service offerings. A close second is that such communication isn’t a casual thing used easily by everybody today — it’s been 30 years after all.


Alan White 04.03.23 at 5:26 am

I do Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders and The Southern Poverty Law Center and Planned Parenthood and others because (i) I have the resources and (ii) believe as with Harry et al positive contributions DO make a difference and believe as well that (iii) negative detriments are individually less significant if I am among some huge number of participants in that activity. But participation in any intentional way in any form is better than not–it manifests ones values even if the big numbers tell you you’re insignificant, and that alone should matter to you.


engels 04.03.23 at 9:00 am

Here’s a number: 0.000226 excess deaths this century per metric ton of carbon dioxide emitted beyond the current rate of emissions. London-NY return in economy is about a metric ton of CO2, so doing that every month for 5 years is 1% of a death.


TM 04.03.23 at 11:58 am

Harry 48: Why do you think refraining from generating greenhouse gasses has no incremental effect? You wouldn’t say that 2 tons of emissions avoided is incrementally more than 1 ton of emissions, and 100 tons is incrementally more than 99 tons? Or do we have different concepts of “incremental effect”?


Harry 04.03.23 at 1:45 pm

Sorry I was writing loosely and interrupted before I looked at what I’d said. My assumption, which is probably wrong (but isn’t contradicted in engels’s link) is that each carbon emission depends on other carbon emissions for its negative effect. Whereas each donation has a positive effect independently of other donations. But I don’t understand the science and don’t claim to.


Trader Joe 04.03.23 at 6:00 pm

On incrementalism

When you’re talking about incremental impacts on air-travel there have to be enough people choosing to not fly such that the jet actually never takes off, not simply takes off with 1 fewer passenger. No academic institution buys enough flights at any one time that this would likely be the case (and thats assuming others don’t take the seats they vacate).

Beyond that, what is often overlooked in the cost of air travel is the significant amount of cargo that is shipped on already running passenger jets. If the jets didn’t fly this cargo would still need to move by ground and while it might move by rail, more likely it moves by truck which greatly reduces the net benefit of the jet having been cancelled.

Engels stat @53 seems about right. You’d need to get thousands of jets a day to be cancelled to move the needle by much. Perhaps morally worth the effort, but there’s not much economic argument to it.


engels 04.03.23 at 8:00 pm

each carbon emission depends on other carbon emissions for its negative effect

That would also be true in the Dr Evil case.


TM 04.04.23 at 7:41 am

I want to be careful not to overstate the “the power of consumerism” (Phil 40). And still comments like this annoy me:

“When you’re talking about incremental impacts on air-travel there have to be enough people choosing to not fly such that the jet actually never takes off, not simply takes off with 1 fewer passenger.”
Of course, if many people decide not to fly any more, there will be fewer flights. Don’t deny the obvious. Individual decisions one at a time will not solve Global Warming on their own, absent a global political effort involving all sectors of society, but nevertheless individuals making decisions are a necessary part of this effort. We need more people to stop being cynical and get real about their personal responsibility. This is because we need every incremental progress we can get, and also people who act personally are more likely to be on board with and demand political action. There will not be political progress without that sort of consciousness. The personal is political and vice versa.

A bit of encouraging news:
Average per capita meat consumption in Germany declined from 60 to 52 kg since 2017. This significant decline seems to be due to individual behavioral change.
Also, domestic flights in Germany in 2022 were 38% lower than in 2019 (pre Covid). This may be partly due to cheaper rail tickets but most likely, flight shame does play a role. Structural and behavioral factors can both play a role.


engels 04.04.23 at 10:19 am

Well personally I would feel guilty about bearing a 1% responsibility (it could easily be more) for someone’s death; you could compare that to a year of someone’s life.

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