Industry Update
External Article 6 January 2021

Rethinking travel in a post-pandemic world

Climate scientists recommend ways to boost the value of virtual conferences and reduce carbon footprints even when travel curbs ease.

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In 2018, social scientist Roger Tyers pledged to stop flying for work and leisure. Soon afterwards, he won a research fellowship that included fieldwork in China. So he decided to take the train from Southampton to Shanghai, a journey of almost two weeks.


"I used to fly a lot," says Tyers, now at the University of Nottingham, UK. His perspective changed when he read a 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that unprecedented societal changes would be needed if humanity wanted to achieve the aims of the Paris climate agreement and keep global warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels. "That really brought home to me the urgency of climate change and how we need to make big changes in our behaviour," he says, "including flying less."

Tyers's trip took him seven weeks, including fieldwork and train travel there and back. He calculates that it generated just 10% of the emissions that the equivalent flights would, which pleases him, even though his train tickets came close to three times the price of the equivalent flights. "I don't expect everybody to be taking the train to China to do fieldwork," he says. "But I think that as academics we can do a little bit better."

Tyers is one of many climate scientists who are advocating for less air travel and following their own advice. Today, as the coronavirus continues to ravage much of the world, Tyers's concerns have receded — at least temporarily — because nearly all conferences and meetings have pivoted to virtual models. Researchers throughout the world have learnt to embrace technology-based solutions for connecting.

But the carbon-footprint issue will remain in the long term. Once the pandemic is brought to heel, scientists will again grapple with how to reconcile the need to fly to meetings and fieldwork sites with their desire to limit — if not eliminate — air travel. A study in October showed that climate scientists tend to fly more often for work compared with their peers (L. Whitmarsh et al. Glob. Environ. Change 65, 102184; 2020), because of their remote fieldwork locations and their travel to international conferences, including those addressing climate-change mitigation.

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