Scaling up flying less

By Anne Pasek, Trent University & Ryan M Katz-Rosene, University of Ottawa

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this”

The line amends a pamphlet written recently by one of this blog’s authors. It was to be dropped in hotel corridors during a conference that had chosen to return to an exclusively in-person format after the years of pandemic restrictions. It is this particular way of meeting that the pamphlet seeks to draw into question: by excluding digital or hybrid formats, the conference organizers have ‘de facto’ required most participants to get on a plane. The author herself will be conspicuously absent: choosing to stay home rather than fly to deliver a 10-minute paper.  She imagines that, in doing so, she’s acting in solidarity with the many scholars that the in-person conference decision effectively excludes for reasons of funding, visas, or care work obligations at home. She also can’t quite stomach the dissonance of burning more jet fuel to discuss her research on… climate change. 

Air travel is a problem for the climate—and a tricky one at that. Added up, all these flights can total one half to two thirds of the work-related carbon footprints of full-time academics—by no means a trivial thing. What’s more, most universities do not include air travel emissions in their own sustainability planning or carbon accounting measures, leaving this significant category uncounted and unaddressed. This is all the more worrying given that, compared to other forms of transportation, there are no clear decarbonization pathways for long-distant flights. While there are some prospective technologies—including electric aircraft prototypes and a new generation of “Sustainable Aviation Fuels”—the emergent nature of such technologies in the context of growing global demand means that a genuinely climate friendly aviation sector may in fact warrant changes in the aviation consumption habits which have been normalized in recent decades (especially in the non-geographic Global North). We need to find a way to move the people away from the departures gate. 

This, understandably, has many of us in the climate movement worried. In the early 2000s, some academics with expertise in climate change science started to raise uncomfortable questions about the ironic and potentially hypocritical act of flying to climate-related work events and conferences. Soon after, a number of other climate-concerned academics from other fields began to also take part in an emergent practice of “flying less”—groups of like-minded scholars were formed, petitions aimed at academic associations were signedresource documents were compiled, and departmental policies seeking to reduce the use of aviation where possible were developed and passed.

There’s enough of us out there by now that it’s fair to call us a distinct movement. In a recent paper discussing the topic, we use the name ‘Academic Flying Less Movement’ (or AFLM for short). We are participants ourselves. Anne Pasek runs the Low-Carbon Research Methods Group, a network of scholars thinking about the intertwined equity and climate impacts of academic work norms. Ryan M Katz-Rosene is the founding editor of the Flying Less in Academia Resource Guide, and spent some years in his former capacity as the President of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada grappling with how to reduce the carbon footprint of its annual conference.

But like other social movements working to change long-standing norms and policies around environmental and social behaviours, there are a baffling number of strategies and scales to be pursued. You might want to start with your own behaviour, taking a principled stand and showing peers how professional norms and personal ethics can or should be differently articulated. Alternatively, you might seek allies in your department or academic association, aiming to pass resolutions or forward new initiatives that create more favourable expectations and rewards for climate-safe travel for you and your peers alike. Wherever you start, there’s usually an imagined scalar trajectory: start small, win friends and allies, and keep scaling up until flying less is the normal course of action for all.

Being norm entrepreneurs

But there are critiques of the idea that small individual (and particularly consumption-based) acts can coalesce into more powerful forms of climate action. Principled individuals who take on a role of a “norms entrepreneur” can be criticized for the relative inefficiency of their individual actions; compared to the hundreds of thousands of flights taking off each day, their gesture is barely a drop in the ocean. Alternatively, if a large enough group forms that a norm seems socially threatened (and pamphlets are being passed around in hallways), those who benefit from that norm may respond defensively, arguing that many marginalized scholars can’t afford to lose speaking opportunities, and are unfairly called out by the AFLM vanguard. Others still may argue that all this emphasis on individual choices and workers is misguided when the real action will happen at the level of national or international policy—so why bother everyone with pamphlets at all? 

This conundrum effectively served as our guiding question in the analysis of what we can learn from and for the AFLM in terms of taking part in meaningful forms of climate action: Is there a point to flying less as academics?

In our thinking we’ve come to the conclusion that yes, there is a point to this all. Flying less has non-trivial potential as a catalyst for broader, multi-scalar approaches to climate change action. If we think about scales of climate action as a related set of opportunities and constraints, it’s clear that—while we want to reach large scales of people—there is no single ideal scale at which to start. Every scale of action has its limitations; as such, the best way forward is an all-of-the-above approach

In our illustration (reprinted below) we note how there are critiques at each scale of climate action that produce scale-shifting reactions. As we have hinted above, smaller scales of climate action have been criticized for having little substantive impact in the grand scheme of things, but one can also critique larger scales of ‘collective action’—such as domestic regulations or global climate governance—for being watered down and insufficient on their own. The obvious corollary is that we need to deepen the types of action at each scale, or adjust our tactics by attempting action at other scales. This is our interpretation of the concept of “spiral scaling“, defined by Peter Newell et al. as “the ongoing process of transformation from ‘shallow’ to ‘deep’ scaling as a dynamic sequence of feedback learning loops between individuals, society, institutions and infrastructures, towards strong global sustainability.”

Figure: Spiral Scaling of climate action

Taking the idea of spiral scaling into account, we argue that to pursue a meaningful holistic contribution to climate change mitigation, AFLM proponents should not only continue to practice flying less in their professional lives, and seek the institutionalization of new norms around flying within academia, but also:

Seek partnerships with other like minded groups within other sectors who are also trying to influence aviation supply chains;

Agitate for more comprehensive emissions-based regulations in the aviation sector (and the aviation fuel supply subsector); and

Call for more ambition in international agreements governing the global aviation sector’s climatic impact.

It’s an ambitious project, but it extends from, rather than negates, the momentum happening at smaller scales.

One analogy that might be helpful here is to think of the way bicycles use gears. When there’s friction at one level, or the resistance is too high or too low, a savvy cyclist will switch gears, shifting up and down to find the right spot to move furthest and fastest in a given terrain. But the thing about moving is that the terrain always changes under you; as such there is no ‘best gear’ for the ride, only the need to listen and adapt to your circumstances and capacities. The ride, in toto, requires the cyclist to try a range of gears at different moments and times. In the same way, as part of a wider movement to reduce the climatic impact of aviation, scholars will have to use a range of actions depending on the circumstances, shifting from individual to group to scholarly associations and schools, to targeting industries, governments and global institutions as well. 

It’ll be a long ride

We hope you’ll join us on the ride. The time is especially ripe, given the disruptions, skill-building, and shifting values of the past few years of pandemic life. We now all know the fundamentals of how to come together for online conferences and collaboration, and that these forms of exchange are more resilient to shifting public health, visa, and budgetary constraints. We can now spend more time designing formats and interfaces that provide better opportunities for networking and conviviality, and pushing for a ‘choice architecture’ in our academic associations, funding bodies, and universities that makes flying less the expected, inclusive, and rewarding option. This may include basic steps like collecting and visualizing emissions data on conferences and departments, year after year, to better explore the equity and speed of mobility changes, or forwarding longer-term modes of travel and regional exchange in lieu of a quick 10 minute conference paper. More expansively, larger cross-sectoral efforts like the Stay Grounded Movement and other climate justice groups have a role to play in fighting for new policies and regulations with impacts far beyond academia, though academics can help with their time, expertise, and bodies on the street. Wherever you find an opportunity to push forward, we encourage you to do so, especially in the ways that bring others along with you for the ride.