Flight quotas outperform focused mitigation strategies in reducing the carbon footprint of academic travel

This is a Preprint and has not been peer reviewed. The published version of this Preprint is available: https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ad30a6. This is version 2 of this Preprint.

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Tamara Ben Ari, Gaëlle Lefort, Jérome Mariette, Olivier Aumont, Laurent Jeanneau, Alexandre Santerne, Aymeric Spiga, Roche Philippe-Emmanuel


The carbon footprint of academia has become a prominent concern and a burgeoning research area, with a notable focus on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from research-related travels. Mitigation strategies often promote alternatives, such as developing virtual communication or adopting sustainable transportation modes for short distances. While more ambitious strategies involving the transformation of research practices are increasingly discussed, these mitigation solutions are rarely subjected to rigorous quantitative assessments or meaningful comparisons. This study analyzes a unique database of about 130 000 travel segments by car, train and plane in 159 research entities across a wide array of disciplines in France. We investigate the patterns and associated carbon footprint of these research travels and explore a diversity of mitigation options. Our analysis shows that air travel overwhelmingly outweighs the carbon footprint of research travel, representing more than 96% of GHG emissions. Intercontinental flights are infrequent (less than 10% of all plane trips) but dominate GHG travel emissions, accounting for over 64% of total emissions. In contrast, domestic and continental flights are the most common but their mitigation potential by modal shift to train is limited (e.g. less than 15% for trips under 1000 km). Similar reductions can be achieved by targeting a small subset of travels, for example by modulating the frequency of conference attendance. The greatest and possibly most robust mitigation potential lies in combining modal shift with moderating air mileage (e.g. reducing travelled distance or number of flights). Strategies focusing on electrification or modal shifts for cars, proposed in official guidelines, are found to have negligible impact. In the absence of low-carbon alternatives for long-haul flights, we contend that only comprehensive strategies and policies which include moderating air travel distance or frequency can achieve a robust significant reduction in the GHG emissions from academic travel.






carbon footprint, academia, Air travel, Mitigation policies


Published: 2023-10-02 01:55

Last Updated: 2024-04-26 07:25

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Database composed of Research Unit information, not fit for publication for the time being