Decarbonisation and Higher Education: competing logics of scarcity

In this blog, Charlotte Weatherill of The Open University talks about the competing demands of limited funding budgets, and decarbonisation policies. Here she tells the story of getting funding to go to POLLEN in Lund without flying, in the context of competing scarcities: of time, money, and carbon.

The academic no-fly movement is gaining momentum, and I am one of the growing number of researchers who makes every effort not to fly for conferences or research. In this blog, I am going to discuss my latest experience of this, reflecting on: What barriers are put in place? What is stopping more researchers with a professed commitment to decarbonisation making the move away from flying? And what are universities and funders doing to help or hinder this transition?

I’ve written about this before, with Matthew Paterson, detailing our nearly derailed (oh no) trip to Stockholm. There we discussed ‘Hidden Infrastructures’. However, in that case, we did not have to argue for the journey from the funders. This time, that is exactly what I had to do. This was about asking universities to stand up to their own commitments to decarbonisation, in the context of tight budgets and a squeeze on universities. This is a tale of competing resources: of time, money, and carbon.

Making the argument

Thanks to my school’s decarbonisation policy, and the support of the Professional Services staff, I have had a success in arguing for train travel from the UK to Sweden. I am attending POLLEN in Lund in 2024. As a climate politics researcher, I avoid flying as much as possible, and so my intention has always been to travel by train.  My school has research funds that you can apply for, up to a limit that covers the journey, so I applied. As I did so, I discovered my school has a ‘De-Carbonizing Research’ policy. I cited this in my application to help justify the extra costs of train travel.

My argument for travelling to Lund via train, with no flight, was twofold:

  1. Whilst adding travel time, including an extra night each way, the journey was feasible and therefore necessary in line with the need to decarbonise academic travel.
  2. I would make this decision and experience part of my reflective process for attending POLLEN, and would continue to make this commitment an important element of who I am as a researcher.

Having submitted my application, I got a response that thanked me for taking sustainable travel into consideration, but due to the school having a limited budget, could I provide a “comparative costing of the cheapest travel option (including air travel)”.

My first response was short and unhelpful: “I wouldn’t be willing to go if I had to fly. This is for a political ecology conference.”

Taking a night to reflect, I wondered why a financial budget could be understood as limited, but not a carbon budget. I therefore followed up the next day, offering to provide a comparative carbon costing of the travel options, based upon the school’s decarbonising research policy, which in turn drew on Our World in Data.

That offer was accepted, and I include the calculation below. I also shared two policies I heard of through colleagues in other universities: Sheffield University have now said all travel to Europe should be by train, and Angela Ruskin’s policy prefers trains for journeys of less than <1000km.

The calculations

Option 1, train only: 83,146gOption 2, flight and train: 318,822g
(National rail) Long Eaton to St Pancras = 170kmx41g = 6,970g(National rail) Long Eaton to Stansted: 204kmx41g = 8,364g
(Eurostar) St Pancras to Brussels = 321kmx6g = 1,926g(Short haul flight) Stansted to Copenhagen 156gx958km = 149,448g
(National rail) Brussels to Lund = 797kmx41g = 32,677g(National rail) Copenhagen to Lund: 41g x 39km = 1,599
(x2 for return) Total: 13940+3852+65354 = 83,146g(x2 for return) Total: 16728+298896+3198 = 318,822g

These figures show that including a flight makes the carbon cost nearly four times bigger. This is less than the more usual 7x bigger, because I conservatively used ‘national rail’ for the Europe trains, despite the fact that at least some of them are likely to be electric. The flight itself would also have not been particularly efficient, only getting me from London to Copenhagen.

This calculation was enough to persuade the school, and my funding was approved. I share this in part to help other researchers who are involved in these struggles within universities. But there is also a broader point here, about how logics of scarcity are used to defend unsustainable practices.

Competing scarcities

In their recent paper, Thierry, Horn, von Hellermann, and Gardner point out that whilst universities have been a key site of knowledge production for climate change, there is little sign of the transformational changes required in the HE sector.

In the UK, a number of universities have declared ‘climate emergencies’, a declaration that brings with it no obligation to act. As I mentioned, some institutions or schools now have decarbonising research policies. However, actually turning these policies into changed practices remains complicated, because of competing scarcities.

  1. University funding scarcity: university budgets are in difficulty. Leaving the cause aside, this creates a tension. I was able to cite a decarbonisation policy that had been commissioned and written, but slow travel costs more, so an extra two days of travelling had to be justified in an atmosphere of scarcity.
  2. Researcher time scarcity: trains are slower. From the UK, you can get to most of Western Europe in a couple of hours by plane. You could return the next day, and never need a visa. (What a privilege.) Going by train is slower. My journey requires a stop-over in Hamburg either way. That’s two more hotel nights. A three day conference becomes a seven day expedition. Unproblematic for me, as I’m child-free, but this could be an insurmountable barrier for people with children or other caring responsibilities.

Scarcity then, becomes a barrier to decarbonisation. But scarcity is also the reason it is needed. When I was asked to cost the two options, this was supposed to be a financial costing. By turning this around, and making it a carbon costing, I was able to re-centre what it is we are actually dealing with here: a carbon budget that is already spent. And a reliance on air travel that has to stop. 

Bio: Charlotte Weatherill is a lecturer in Politics & International Studies at the Open University. Charlotte’s research explores the concept of vulnerability in climate change politics, particularly in relation to Oceania and colonial discourses. Her research interests include environmental and climate change politics, and theories of feminism, coloniality and racial capitalism.

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