Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission

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There is a neat article (or “peer-reviewed letter”) in this months Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment about the carbon contribution of conservation ecologists’ airplane flights.  Their point is that we fly too much and are clearly part of the problem.  They also point out the obvious hypocrisy.


The unease about frequent flying should be particularly acute for the community of ecologists and conservation scientists – a group of professionals who commonly speak out against emissions, yet by virtue of their own behavior have individual carbon footprints that probably exceed the per capita footprints of most Americans.

We thirteen conservation scientists span a wide range of jobs (academic institutions and non-governmental organizations) and career stages (junior to senior scientists), and – although not a random sample – we are fairly representative of those in the conservation field. The results give pause: the emissions from our flights account for an astonishing two-thirds of our average carbon footprint. Thus, in spite of considerably lower-carbon lifestyle choices (eg diet, purchasing/driving a hybrid car, home energy conservation) that made our non-flying carbon footprint 16% smaller than the average American’s, our total emissions are double that of the American average and more than ten times the global average (Figure 1WebPanel 1). The mismatch between individual behavior and conservation platitudes has already been noted (eg Bearzi 2009) and is a source of considerable embarrassment for the conservation community (Dowie 2008).

You too can calulate your carbon footprint:  using this carbon footprint calculator (which is the one Fox et al used) or several others which can be found online.  BTW, anybody know about the accuracy of these things, which one is “best”, etc.?

I have my Marine Ecology class do this every year when I give a general lecture about climate change.  Last time I did mine, I was curious how much I’d reduce my footprint if I downsized from a Hummer to a Prius (I don’t drive either-I have a Rav4 and ride my bike to work a lot); remarkably the savings barely equaled my annual carbon contribution from flying for work and I typically only fly ~20,000 per year!  Pretty amazing.  Also interesting is the importance of how MUCH you drive, which again, can wash out the benefits of driving a small car (if you drive a lot).  I have been trying to fly less.  I rarely go to conferences and only give one invited lecture a year.  But those decisions are partially because I prefer to save my travel time for field work.  It is a tough balance-just enough miles to achieve AA gold status but not so much that I melt the earth!


Helen E Fox, Peter Kareiva, Brian Silliman, Jessica Hitt, David A Lytle, Benjamin S Halpern, Christine V Hawkes, Joshua Lawler, Maile Neel, Julian D Olden, Martin A Schlaepfer, Katherine Smith, Heather Tallis (2009) Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment: Vol. 7, No. 6, pp. 294-296.

Bearzi G. 2009. When swordfish conservation biologists eat swordfish. Conserv Biol 23: 1–2.

Dowie M. 2008. The wrong path to conservation. The Nation. Sep 10. www.thenation.com/doc/20080929/dowie

6 thoughts on “Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission

  1. I guess the saying “You have to spend money to make money” comes to mind. One would hope that the n=13 are burning this carbon for a higher environmental cause that will make the world nice and fuzzy.

  2. Thanks for saying this, John. I’m especially culpable as I’m about to get on a plane for PNG. I couldn’t help but think this issue was (hopefully) on everyone’s minds last summer in Ft. Lauderdale during the 11th ICRS. But I think Brian raises an important point (spending money to make money). While I think great technological leaps might be possible in virtual conferences (though I’d miss the hallway and coffee discussions), there’s simply no way around air travel necessary for field work and on the ground capacity-building (education, trainings, community-based conservation projects, EBM-building, etc) for conservation.

    I think this work needs to be as front-loaded as possible with an emphasis on getting locals trained and up to speed to implement work, but there’s still a need to get there to get the ball rolling.

    Strategic “dissemination centers” in coral biogeographic regions have been, and will increasingly become, critically important for this issue. Having “experts” and skills closer to the need could certainly make at least a little dent in greenhouse gas emissions.

  3. The simple answer to the question posed in the title is that we are locked in to a system of professional engagement that expects us to travel long distances over short periods of time to attend important(?) meetings. The question is how do we transform the system, change our travel habits and our work habits and remain effective in what we do? That is a highly complex problem that will involve inovation at many different levels of scale from the individual upward.

    Is there a multi-disciplinary team with the time to propose and develop innovative solutions? Are their political, industrial and academic leaders who are willing to take up the challenge and change our current patterns of work, travel and aircraft use?

  4. For air travel in the above graph, research and networking comprise the lion’s share of the travel of n=13 conservation biologists. I presume the networking translates to meetings, symposia, conferences and the like. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel here, since distance learning is increasingly becoming more common as a means to transmit knowledge, network, present findings, etc. But for academic track conservation scientists, unless their departments begin creating incentives to NOT present papers at conferences (while still satisfying tenure track requirements), I don’t suspect droves will stay home to participate online. Again, not an intractable problem, but one that will require a rethinking of status quo.

    As to the air travel for field work/research/site-based work, I’m still stumped. Remote sensing can only do so much. Citizen science (Reef, Reef Check, etc) is trying to expand the reach of local data collection. But conservation also requires sweat (physical labor) and relationships with local people based on trust. That’s seems a harder problem to solve remotely.

  5. Well there is always carbon offsetting- even though this isn’t the solution in the long term. Find a green energy idea and invest in them! Money talks!

  6. Mike Jones wrote that “we are locked in to a system of professional engagement that expects us to travel long distances over short periods of time to attend important(?) meetings.”

    Perhaps we could create incentives for conferences that engage locals to a greater degree. From what I have seen in policy meetings, trade shows and academic conferences alike, the focus is on the short-term in which participants generally spend more time getting to and from the conference than the event itself.

    Fact is all events can be more eco, more friendly, more democratic and more fun. The best events offer learning experiences, engaged networking and opportunities to be inspired and to be inspiring to others. How to make this change? By talking up the events that are different, including the unconference and Open Space models and using the Web (hashtags!) to create parallel encounters so that we are better informed before, during and after the event.

    Some rough ideas are sketched out on the Planeta Wiki

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