Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Carbon Feet

Some of you guessed that yesterday's post was leading up to a discussion of Professorial Carbon Footprints. And some of you may have guessed that my Professorial Carbon Footprint (PCF) is quite large owing to the number of miles I fly in airplanes each year.

In my personal life, I have quite a small carbon footprint. My family has made choices involving where we live relative to work/school, how we travel to/from work, how often we drive the one aged, small, and awesomely fuel efficient vehicle that we all share, how and how much we heat/cool our house, and so on. We are a very environment-friendly little family with a very small carbon footprint.

Not so in my professional life. In my professional life, environmental concerns might affect how I organize some of my travel -- e.g. scheduling travel to two not-so-far-apart places in a single trip rather than jetting back and forth to each place. I do not, however, make decisions about whether to travel based on airplane carbon emission issues.

For example, I can't imagine saying, when invited to visit another university or attend a conference and give a talk, "Sorry, I can't come because I don't want to increase my carbon footprint." It's not that my talks are so awesome and I can't live without giving yet another talk, but an important part of my professor job is to interact with other people, talk to and listen to students and colleagues, do the FSP role model thing (in person), establish and maintain international connections, communicate the results of my research etc. Some of my research involves international collaboration that cannot be accomplished via email or Skype, and maintaining these collaborations involves international travel to visit colleagues and attend conferences other than those in the US.

If I weren't sure if I wanted/needed to go to a conference in a far-flung location, I might make a decision about whether to go based in part on environmental impact issues, but my main decision factors are the value of the experience, whether I have time, and the impact on my family.

Last year, a colleague criticized me for traveling so much and therefore having a large carbon footprint, so I asked him what kind of car he drives. He drives an SUV and he drives it more in a month than I drive my 2-door hatchback in a year. My little car wouldn't do well in a collision with his SUV, but it does very well in a carbon footprint contest.

That may not be sufficient justification for my predilection for high PCF travel, but the only way I could reduce my PCF in any significant way would be to restrict my research activities to the US, despite the intellectual and other (broader impact..) benefits of international collaboration. Would it nevertheless be worth it so as to be carbon neutral (or better) in my professional life as well as my personal life? At the moment my answer is no, but perhaps when Antarctica melts even more, none of will be able to make such a choice.


Anonymous said...

I have wondered, but never asked the grants and contracts folks at my University, whether carbon offsets could be reimbursed like other travel expenses on a grant.

barbara said...

I try to limit my travel outside Europe, not for carbon footprint reason but because I just mind long trips now that I have a family.
I do try to travel by train within Europe when feasible - I guess this might not be an option in the US.
On the other hand, our family life would crash without two cars. This might or might not be related to having more than one child.

Anonymous said...

What is it with left symbolic empty gestures thing? The individual contribution to global warming from someone who doesn't drive a large SUV or lives in a mansion is negligible compared to the waste in transportation and manufacturing.

Moving half of the goods off the roads and into trains would save four times the CO2 output of the entire commercial air fleet.

A basic principle of optimization is that you work on the large chunks. Saving 20% of a large chunk has a bigger impact and lower cost per unit saved than saving 80% of a minuscule thing.

Which are the big chunks where large C02 savings can easily be attained? Reduce amount of industrial shipped goods on the highway (move to rail or have *industries* buy local), ban inefficient large SUVs (the 30%+ of SUVs out there burn more gas than the other 2/3rds of the car fleet), force *utilities* to use alternative sources of energy (wind, solar).

Anonymous said...

A MSP says:

While I freely admit family time is my main reason for wanting to minimize travel, I've become concerned about this as well.

At this point, some of it is ridiculous. The NSF, for example, should save money, everybody's time, and the environment by having grant decision meetings (and most other meetings) electronically rather than physically, so people don't have to travel. Same for other Program Committee meetings in the future. If there's a need for conversation, set up a conference call, with video if needed, using Skype or similar tools.

I understand the need for conferences and other venues for scientists to get together and have serendipity take effect as ideas meet each other. But I'm looking forward to the day where even some fraction of conferences are electronic, where speakers can upload videos of their talks and meet online instead of physically.

Tom said...

Unfortunately, I don't think many of us researchers are in a position to reduce significantly our carbon footprints without negatively effecting our work.

For me, I do my best to be financially responsible with my travel. I'll drive whenever possible (up to a 1,000 miles even) because driving a company vehicle can save us up to a $1,000 on nonrefundable tickets (which we're typically obligated to purchase -- or be stuck doing a bunch of paperwork to justify why we didn't). Plus, I'll stay with friends or family if I have any in the area.

My hope is that one day SOON, we have much more effective, and greener transportation, and so my driving the company car will be very green and it'll help reduce costs and my carbon footprint.

Anonymous said...

Surely, your PCF is nothing compared to us researchers in the life sciences who dispose of tons of single-use plastics a day!

Unknown said...

There's no real need to travel less to reduce your carbon footprint; buying carbon offsets has the same effect in terms of carbon. (In terms of other issues, well, you can argue the cost of using up our limited supply of fossil fuels versus the value of (say) establishing a stable forest ecosystem. You can also argue about whether carbon offsets are correctly counting the carbon generated by (say) air travel.) Carbon offsets are surprisingly inexpensive - I buy them for personal travel when I can. But ideally funding agencies and corporations would view carbon offsets as part of the cost of travel and cover them themselves.

Anonymous said...

I gotta say, I'm really hoping academia catches on to the carbon footprint argument and travel becomes less de rigeur. But I don't think it's going to happen, because too many people really love getting together at conferences. My problem is . . . I hate it. I hate travel, I hate being away from home, I hate crowds, and I don't like to go out for drinks after the sessions are over. I travel far less than many of my colleagues, and my career is on a slower track because of it.

Anonymous said...

I turned a talk down because the route I needed to go covered way more countries and touchdowns/liftoffs than I thought was humanly possible, and no amount of trying to simplify made any headway. I just thought it was too much flying and airline nonsense for a talk.

BTW, The Society for Conservation Biology includes a charge for carbon footprint in with their meeting registration.

Anonymous said...

You can reduce your PCF by choosing to do research on catalysts that can split water. Or working on hydrogen storage materials, or catalysts for the chemical industry, alternative fuels, etc...

For those in the biochem fields, I suppose you would have to stop trying to cure cancer and start working on heterogenous catalysts. Get to it now. Chop chop. I'm looking at you YFS and CPP (if you're reading the comments). Oh, and tell the NIH to give NSF all its money.

If I had a choice, I'd rather die of cancer than climate change. Of course, I have my own perfect death planned out, but I'm afraid it's a far-fetched scenario. We all have to live in the real world, and that means less caring about human disease if you want to reduce your PCF.

Anonymous said...

"Surely, your PCF is nothing compared to us researchers in the life sciences who dispose of tons of single-use plastics a day!"

It's called "carbon sequestration". Next time you go to the grocery store, tell them to 'double bag it'.

Anonymous said...

According to "Friends of the Earth" airplane travel accounts for 3% uf US carbon emissions.
Surely there are better ways to improve the environment than by asking individual air travellers to cut back on their work trips?

John Vidale said...

Carbon footprint issues, I'd agree with the second poster, need to be tackled on the macro not micro scales. High gas taxes, required mileage goals for car makers, more funding for mass transit and less for highways - these make some impact.

One 13-yr-old car serves our household, not coincidently the bus service is good. The U rents Prius's for $4/hr for work-related trips. But I'm not so invested in solving 1 ten-billionth of the world's problems.

However, the NSF (a rotation of 6) and USGS (I've done 9) panels I've sat on would work less well without a physical presence. Without the freedom of discussion contained to a single room, I expect panels would grow very conservative and respectful of the status quo. And the impact of them pales in comparison with that of the large international meetings.

Julie @ Bunsen Burner Bakery said...

While I completely agree that we should all try our best at home to reduce our carbon footprints, there is indeed a limit when it spills over to professional life or uncontrollable aspects of personal life. I do not believe that the answer to solving global warming lies in taking fewer trips for talks or conferences -- it will not make enough of a difference to let your professional occupation suffer.

Likewise, multiple people have been giving me crap lately about the fact that my husband is moving away for residency and we will be in a long-distance marriage. Several have suggested that the "responsible" thing to do would be get a divorce, because my selfishness of traveling is eating up resources. My husband and I did not date long distance, were not engaged long distance, and during his intern year, we were not long distance. It is unfortunate that his residency will be elsewhere, while I still have 2+ years to go for my degree, but I hardly think the situation requires divorce.

Anonymous said...

My PCF comes last on my worries list. The only solution I see is that everybody would just have to live somewhere in the woods, eating wild mushrooms from time to time.

alh said...

There were moments when I was traveling all over the US to interview for faculty positions in environmental science that I thought maybe the whole thing was a bit hypocritical.

But I've come to realize that carbon offsets, climate change and saving the environment as a whole are not necessarily about cutting back on things that make the world (and scientific discoveries that require some carbon usage) better, but about changing the collective thought to be about personal choices, personal responsibilities and support of innovative changes.

We should all find solutions that fit into our own personal lives and not make others feel bad about the choices that work in their lives. A single small change by all makes a big difference in the long run...if it's a different change for everyone than that's still ok.

You cut out miles on car, your colleague cuts out miles in a plane: both choices help and you should both feel good about that. What good is saving the world if we all end up hating living in it?

Anonymous said...

The carbon footprint of flying, per passenger, is of the same order of magnitude as that passenger driving the same distance: one trip to Europe is as costly as driving for an entire year!