SustainabilityPractice-Oriented Toolbox Aims to Help Reduce Climate-Harmful Air Travel

21 December 2023

Instruments developed especially for academic institutions – strategies for consistent planning and avoidance

International networking and research, on the one hand, and climate action by reducing business-related trips, particularly air travel, on the other − the question of how to resolve such a problem, characterised by conflicting goals, has been tackled by scientists from the Heidelberg based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (ifeu) and from Heidelberg University. Under the direction of ifeu, the FlyingLess project team developed a practice-oriented toolbox designed to contribute to the consistent planning, institutional implementation and strategic establishment of air travel avoidance. The instruments, freely available online, are particularly tailored to academia. The underlying study is based on a survey of eight academic institutions.

The authors emphasise that worldwide research cooperation, international conferences and field work on other continents form an important element of current academic culture, as do international student exchange programmes. These activities frequently give rise to business trips, which make up a considerable share of the greenhouse gas emissions of academic institutions, the eight-institution ifeu survey found. The fact that air travel in connection with international networking leaves a sizable carbon footprint is a “dilemma”, notes Dr Nicole Aeschbach from Heidelberg University’s Institute of Geography, who is involved in the FlyingLess project as a partner.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from business air travel is one of the effective ways of leveraging climate action in academia, as it can be implemented immediately, Dr Aeschbach adds. “At the same time, universities and non-university research institutions have a great responsibility, precisely when it comes to showing that, and how, scientific findings on human-induced climate change can be converted into practical action to mitigate climate change,” says the scientist, who founded the TdLab Geography, a laboratory for transdisciplinary research, and works at the Heidelberg School of Education. The ifeu-survey shows that 70 percent of academics would be willing to reduce their flights by using virtual forms of exchange or other means of transport more frequently.

Virtual exchange can also entail co-benefits, for instance by enabling individuals with limited financial budgets to attend distant meetings and conferences. Saving time is another positive side-effect, underlines Dr Maximilian Jungmann from the Heidelberg Center for the Environment, Heidelberg University’s environmental research centre. “By contrast, we would then lose out on many advantages related to personal exchange and networking opportunities at the international level precisely for early-career researchers,” underlines Dr Jungmann, who is also one of the authors of the study.

The ifeu project detected such conflicting goals with the aid of interviews and surveys. As a second focus of activity, the FlyingLess team developed practice-oriented tools. A modular application-oriented toolbox contains information on project management and institutional strategy development, along with checklists, methods and tips, designed to support the institutions in the consistent planning, implementation and lasting establishment of flight reduction projects. To this end, the different actors within the institution are to be effectively engaged in dialogue with one another in order to jointly draw up guidelines for action. Furthermore, the findings gained and tools provided by the FlyingLess project are meant to be transferable to other sectors.

The toolbox is presented and discussed in an article published in the Nature Portfolio Journal “npj Climate Action”. The first author of the publication is Dr Susann Görlinger, FlyingLess project lead at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Also participating from ifeu was early-career researcher Caroline Merrem. The Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action is funding the FlyingLess project in the context of Germany’s National Climate Initiative.

Original publication

S. Görlinger, C. Merrem, M. Jungmann, N. Aeschbach (2023): An evidence-based approach to accelerate flight reduction in academia. npj Climate Action