World map with a toy plane and a pointing finger on it.

28 August 2023

By Associate Professor Kim Blackmore

I find myself in a confronting situation: engaged in a research and development effort to curb carbon emissions from university air travel.

I didn’t actively pursue this topic; it was placed in my hands. Yet, it resonates deeply with my concerns about the escalating impact of climate change. As we confront the reality of a degraded planet for future generations, I feel compelled contribute to changing the trajectory any way I can. I try to do my bit for the planet. Solar panels grace my rooftop, I ride my electric bike, I’m in the process of switching to electric vehicle and I’m preparing to move my home from gas to electric heating. I garden, I mend, I eat less meat. But I also fly.

And there’s the rub – flying is one of the most carbon-intensive activities we do. A typical domestic round trip in Australia emits 200kg of carbon. Around trip  from my home in Canberra to the UK emits 1.8 tonnes. I don’t have any instinctive sense what those numbers mean, so it helps to know that the global average is 4.8 tonnes per person per year.  Many factors beyond my control mean my personal carbon emissions are much higher than the global average – Australia has an average per capita footprint of 17 tonnes. But I do have some agency over how much I travel, and it is confronting to think that I could exceed the global per capita average emissions through air travel alone this year. 

It is nice to think technology will save us. The airline industry is aware of the problem and working hard to find solutions. But we are in a race against time. The IPC tells us that we must halve emissions by 2030 to avoid catastrophic global heating, yet the industry target for net zero flying is 2050. We cannot meet the 2030 target if we just keep flying.

This is a hard truth to confront. I like to travel. Air travel is a big thing in universities. Gathering with our peers in conferences to share ideas and develop our thinking, studying abroad, visiting research labs and conducting fieldwork are understood to be key components of academic work. Air travel is intricately intertwined with academic pursuits, particularly for institutions like ANU, which boasts a legacy of international collaboration and networking. The exposure to diverse perspectives and ideas has enriched academia for generations. It is professionally and personally very inconvenient to be confronted daily with the realities that we must fly less, not more, if we are to combat climate change. Yet many universities are starting to grapple with exactly that.

It is a big ask – transforming air travel norms in academia. What is to be done? More on that next time. For now, I will wallow in my cognitive dissonance… My flight is boarding.