The ALLEA online panel ‘Climate Sustainability in the Academic System – the Why and the How’ provided a platform for discussion on the climate impact of the academic system and potential pathways towards more sustainable practices.
Panelists offered an overview of the current levels of CO2-equivalent emissions that can be tied to specific academic work. The discussion focused on the steps that universities, research centres, funding institutions as well as individual students and researchers can take to reduce their climate impact.
The online event, held on 1 February, was opened with a presentation by Professor Astrid Eichhorn, speaker of Die Junge Akademie and Chair of the ALLEA Working Group Climate Sustainability in the Academic System. Professor Eichhorn introduced the topic drawing from available research data as well as on some of the preliminary results from the upcoming report by the ALLEA Working Group.
Limiting Researchers’ CO2 budget
Professor Eichhorn set the stage to the discussion with an introduction to the data presented in the 2018 IPCC report, which estimated that there is a “remaining budget” of 420 gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions for a 66% chance to stay below the 1.5°C of global warming stipulated in the Paris Agreement. This translates to a “budget” of 1.5 tons of CO2-equivalent emission per person per year. Data presented on the impact levels of universities, research institutes, and conference travels show that researchers from across scientific fields far exceed the yearly “budget” necessary to remain under 1.5°C of global warming.
Some universities have managed to reduce their GHG emissions in electricity and heating by turning to “green” providers or by installing on-campus solar/wind energy sources
In regards to universities, Professor Eichhorn pointed out that the main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions include electricity and heating, although some universities have managed to reduce their GHG emissions in electricity and heating by turning to “green” providers or by installing on-campus solar/wind energy sources. She also underlined that many universities are now starting to estimate and report their GHG emissions, which is a necessary first step to be able to take meaningful and tailored action against climate impact. However, comparing the different reports from universities reveals that there is still a lack of standardisation in reporting (i.e. different categories are being used and reported), which makes it difficult to compare across institutions.
The main sources of GHG emissions at these institutions are very strongly tied to the research activities they perform
As an example for the level of GHG emissions from research institutes, Professor Eichhorn introduced the findings of a study from the Max Planck Institute of Astronomy in Germany, which estimates the CO2-equivalent emissions per researcher per year within the institute at 18.1 tons. In Australia, this number goes up to 41.8 tons per researcher per year, both digits being significantly above the previously mentioned “yearly budget” of 1.5 tons. A considerable fraction of emissions comes from flights, but also from electricity, of which a significant amount derive from the electricity used in scientific computing. The main sources of GHG emissions at these institutions are very strongly tied to the research activities they perform, which makes it challenging to reduce these emissions in ways that do not compromise the research quality.
In-person conferences can reduce their GHG emissions by up to 20% by optimising the conference location.
Speaking on the climate impact of conference travels, Professor Eichhorn presented data estimating that the CO2-equivalent emissions per conference participant from air travel alone can be as high as 1 ton, with participants taking long-haul flights contributing to the larger share of emissions. She highlighted that switching to virtual meetings has the potential to bring about a reduction between 94% and 98% in GHG emissions compared to in-person meetings. In-person conferences can also reduce their GHG emissions by up to 20% by optimising the conference location. An additional co-benefit of virtual and hybrid events is the higher participation from students and researchers from traditionally underrepresented parts of the world, who usually cannot attend such conferences due to the distance or costs that this would incur. This higher inclusivity can also result in the increase of research quality.
Professor Eichhorn concluded by presenting data that show that an increasing number of individual actors within the academic system are taking a look at their climate impact and taking meaningful steps to reduce it. For instance, more than a 1,000 universities and colleges have made a net-zero pledge across different scopes. The Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany, comprising several research institutions, has pledged to reach climate neutrality by 2035, and there are also numerous initiatives to reduce flying in academia. However, Professor Eichhorn points out that it is necessary to go beyond initiatives by individual actors, but rather start thinking more systemically and initiate a broader dialogue with all of the stakeholders in academia to think about ways to make the academic system more climate sustainable.
Power Structures, Mobility and Academic Freedom
Following her presentation, Professor Eichhorn was joined by a panel of three experts: Dr Nina Marsh, Head of the staff unit Internal Audit & Sustainability Management at the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation; Professor Carly McLachlan, Director of Tyndall Manchester and Associate Director of the ESRC Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformation; and Henriette Stoeber, Policy Analyst at the European University Association’s Higher Education Policy Unit.
Asked about one specific change urgently needed to make the academic system more sustainable, Professor Carly McLachlan spoke of the need for academics with more influence and power within the system to recognise and use their influence to change the current state of affairs within academia. This would entail, for example, a push to include climate sustainability in the requirements for academic promotions, research proposals, and other elements that are embedded within the academic career ladder.
There is a need for establishing criteria to make meetings in person or virtual and allowing for more flexibility for the mobility of researchers.
Speaking on the role of funding organisations in steering the academic system towards a more sustainable path, Dr Nina Marsh emphasised the changes that can be implemented in the area of mobility, particularly for globally-operating research networks that seek to facilitate inter-cultural exchanges. She pointed out alternatives being explored within the Alexander von Humboldt-Foundation, including having criteria as to which meetings are required to be in person and which can be virtual, combining virtual and in-person meetings, and allowing for more flexibility in regards to mobility of research fellows. She also spoke on the need for such organisations to adopt ways to assess their environmental footprint in order to take more tailored steps to reduce their climate impact. Other stakeholders like service providers and organisational partners must also be taken into consideration when analysing the organisation’s climate impact.
Regarding the role of European higher education institutions in advancing climate sustainability in the academic system, Henriette Stoeber introduced a 2021 survey by the European University Association which comprised around 400 European universities. The survey revealed that an area where universities have been particularly active is the area of learning and teaching, for example by revising their curricula and including the topic of sustainability into their courses. In terms of net-zero targets, such as greening university campuses, infrastructure, and research activities, the data shows that universities’ strategies remain much less clear.
Asked about the impact of imposing more climate sustainable regulations on research and academic freedom, all panellists agreed that requiring research to be more climate-sustainable would not negatively impact the outcome of the research findings. Professor McLachlan asserted that academic freedom is about freedom of thought and freedom to explore the conclusions drawn based on the evidence. She emphasised that there are already restrictions and regulations in place to protect colleagues, research subjects and institutions. Protecting the environment and the people around the world, she argued, would be an extension of those regulations that are already in place.
The panelists concluded that it is not important to get everything right from the beginning, but what is important is that organisations and individuals commit to doing what they can to move towards climate sustainability. As individuals start to reassemble and move away from the pandemic restrictions, there is an opportunity to do things differently.
The panel was followed by an interactive session in which participants were able to join different thematic groups to continue the discussion. The thematic breakout sessions included Universities & University Networks, Students & Individual Researchers, and Funding Organisations. The breakout sessions were led by members of the ALLEA Working Group on Climate Sustainability in the Academic System.