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Less Flying for UZH

The University of Zurich wants its members to reduce air travel by at least 53 percent by 2030. Environmental psychologist and sustainability expert Somara Gantenbein on the background, significance and implementation of the goals.
Interview: Roger Nickl; English translation by Caitlin Stephens
Make Science, not Miles: UZH is committed to forms of scientific collaboration that require less air travel.

Flying places a heavy burden on the environment. Air travel by UZH members has had the most negative impact on the university’s ecological balance sheet up to now. In 2018/2019, air travel accounted for around 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions generated at the university. This is now set to change: By 2030, the University of Zurich aims to reduce flight-related emissions by at least 53 percent. As early as next year, air travel must be cut by 40 percent compared to the pre-pandemic years of 2018/2019.

Somara Gantenbein, UZH employees should fly less in the future and thus protect the environment and resources. The Executive Board of the University has decided that flight-related emissions must be reduced by at least 53 percent by 2030. What’s the rationale for this target?

In the implementation strategy for the Sustainability Policy, UZH has set itself the goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030, with at least 50 percent of emissions being reduced through our own measures. Since air travel accounts for a very high proportion of UZH’s emissions, that’s where we need to take the most action. During the pandemic, it became apparent that there are a great deal of situations in which air travel is not really necessary. Last year, flight emissions decreased by 76 percent compared to 2018/2019. From an ecological point of view, a return to the status quo would represent a missed opportunity.

If we do manage to hit the target, what will it mean for UZH?

If we achieve the reduction in flight-related emissions, we will have reduced our annual emissions by at least 3,700 metric tons of CO2 equivalents. This would demonstrate to the public that UZH is fulfilling its social responsibility, including in terms of sustainability. UZH conducts research on the environment, social justice, the climate crisis, and ethics, to name just a few relevant areas. That means we know what it takes to preserve our planet and we ought therefore to do our part. We expect UZH members to more carefully weigh up whether a particular trip by air is really important for conducting good research. Besides the undisputed downsides, virtual communication also offers many advantages (for example, more time for teaching and for colleagues nearby, as well as for the family and private life). We want this to be more widely acknowledged at UZH.

Portrait Picture of Somara Gantenbein with statement: "The most affective approach is to book fewer long-haul flights."

In your view, has the current pandemic accelerated the discussion about reducing air travel?

The topic had already been on the agenda at UZH for quite a while, but the pandemic thrust it into the foreground. The starting point for the discussion has changed, precisely because it has been shown that it is possible to work effectively with less air travel.

As early as next year, UZH members must cut their flying by 40 percent. What does that mean for the UZH community?

It means that they are still allowed to fly, and even fly much more than they have during the last two years. The 40 percent reduction actually refers to emissions from air travel and not to the number of flights or flight kilometers. A flight from A to B does not always produce the same amount of emissions; it depends, among other things, on stopovers and on the airline. In addition, aircraft efficiency is increasing every year. Whether you fly business or economy also plays a major role, of course. For example: In 2019/2020, 6 to 8 percent of UZH flights were in business class, and they generated nearly a quarter of UZH’s flight emissions.

How are the reduction targets to be implemented in concrete terms?

In the Extended Executive Board of the University, representatives expressed their wish for the faculties to have as much freedom as possible in deciding how to achieve the targets. It is thus now up to the faculties to decide for themselves how they want to achieve the goal in concrete terms. This may take the form of a faculty-internal incentive levy, a travel policy, or other means. Any solution that works is welcome.

What will be the biggest hurdles?

There is still a direct conflict of goals between climate protection and academic mobility. Mitigating this is a major challenge and affects all academic institutions worldwide. We are therefore also cooperating with other universities in national and international networks on this topic.

In your experience, what are the most effective and feasible measures to achieve the reduction targets?

From an ecological point of view, the most feasible and effective measure is, of course, not flying (laughs). But seriously, it is about reducing the amount of air travel, not doing away with it altogether. The most effective approach is to book fewer long-haul flights; these account for 84 to 89 percent (2018/2019) of flight emissions at UZH. Every single long-haul flight avoided is a gain. There are many other possible measures, such as choosing the most efficient airlines, flying economy only, or introducing an incentive levy on greenhouse gas emissions. However, I can’t make a blanket statement about what the most feasible measures are in each case; they vary greatly depending on the requirements and tasks of the faculties and the offices of the president and vice presidents.

Greenhouse gas emissions by causation category (in metric tons of CO2e)

What if the measures adopted by the faculties are not sufficient to achieve the goal set?

If it becomes clear that the target will not be met, a faculty or office will be asked to implement another measure that is already working elsewhere or to adopt the centrally developed incentive levy. We will be developing this levy approach in the coming months – always taking into account the experiences of the faculties and offices.

How would you rate the willingness of UZH members to forgo air travel?

I’m confident about that. Because people have now experienced using many different forms of virtual contact, they have already reevaluated their opinion about the need for air travel to a certain extent. If we can get UZH members to be truly aware of the true costs of flying and contrast these with the expected benefits of their travel, then we will have achieved our most important goal.

As an environmental psychologist, I don’t want the emphasis to be on “doing without”. Whatever we choose to do, it always means missing out on something else. Traveling somewhere, for example, means spending several hours on a plane and missing out on productive working hours or time with colleagues nearby or family. Crowds at the security check, flight delays and jet lag mean we feel stressed and thus miss out on maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle. And we haven’t even mentioned the greenhouse gas emissions yet. The benefits of travel are undisputed, but we should also be realistic about the costs – the ones that are not included in the ticket price. 

Junior researchers in particular need to attend international conferences to build their professional network. This is hardly possible without air travel. How can this dilemma be reconciled?

The Executive Board of the University has decided that in designing the measures, the particular needs of junior researchers building up a network must be respected, and that the measures must not lead to either conscious or unconscious discrimination of individuals. The measures must therefore also be compatible with the Diversity Policy and the Gender Policy Code of Conduct. This is not a contradiction: There are, after all, many established researchers who may be able to fly less without damaging their reputation. The climate crisis is also causing values and expectations to change.

Are there already any specific examples at UZH of positive responses to the requirement to fly less?

There were already a few working groups in individual departments that wanted to reduce their flight-related emissions before the Executive Board’s resolution. Such working groups are now also being formed at faculty level, and they are facing the challenge positively and with great motivation.

Reducing air travel is an important step toward a climate-neutral university. In which other areas does UZH have room for improvement?

After air travel, energy demand, commuting and procurement are the most relevant for our ecological footprint. However, there are still gaps in the data regarding procurement – we are trying to close these as quickly as possible. In addition, we are currently looking into which research areas could contribute to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.


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