2018 Wall Scholars launch initiative to address UBC flight emissions

November 4, 2019

By Malone Mullin

Like most academics, Sara Milstein considers herself one of the good guys. A kind of antithesis to the money-driven business elite that is often presented as the biggest culprit in the climate crisis. As she puts it, she’s part of a class that views itself as engaged in a kind of pure pursuit.

That’s precisely why the new venture she is a part of is such a hard sell: convincing academics to curtail travel, one of the biggest perks of the job, and stay home for the sake of the planet.

Epiphany struck Milstein, an associate professor with UBC’s classical, near eastern, and religious studies department and a 2018 Wall Scholar, in a casual meeting with fellow scholars at the Peter Wall Institute in June, when a presentation from the university’s geography department laid the oft-neglected environmental impact of Milstein’s work bare. 

For all her well-intentioned networking, hard work and hustle, Milstein realized she might be doing more harm than good – and all because of the thriving culture of conferences in academia.

According to the report presented by UBC geographers Seth Wynes and Simon Donner, staff and faculty at UBC board an average of two to five planes a year, with more than half of those flights headed to conferences around the globe. Business-related air travel emissions at UBC total a whopping 26,333 to 31,685 tons of CO2e each year, equivalent to 63 to 73 percent of the total annual emissions from the operation of the Vancouver UBC campus.

This means that, from business-related air travel alone, on average each instructor, professor and post-grad researcher at UBC is responsible for about 2 tonnes of CO2e annually, nearly the entire budget of 2.5 tonnes a person required to adhere to the Paris climate accord. However, it’s important to note that the average professor (not associate or assistant, but fully tenured) had emissions of 7.52 tonnes, compared to 2.44 for graduate students. 

Milstein, along with colleagues from various corners of the Vancouver campus, ruminated on the news. 

“I felt dread,” Milstein recalls, upon hearing the data. “And just shock. We tend to think of our work as very important – we’re not always inclined to think about the ethical ramifications of it.”

“It ended up taking over so many of our conversations,” says Jessica Dempsey, an associate professor with the geography department and the Wall Scholar who brought the research to her colleagues’ attention. 

Dempsey described the discord that ensued that day, with faculty initially feeling defensive or guilty, trying to figure out how to justify each business trip. “I think I actually said, ‘This is why the world will burn,’” Dempsey chuckled. “Knowledge workers don’t see themselves as having a big environmental impact.” 

As weeks passed and the elephant in the room only grew more restless, the possibility of shifting travel culture on campus as a whole emerged. Milstein, Dempsey, and a handful of others launched Zero Emission University in hopes that the idea would ripple. 

The project’s founders signed an open letter to the UBC administration calling for institutional support – “an apparatus that is needed to make sure we aren’t penalizing people who say no to trips,” Dempsey explains – while also encouraging faculty to sign a pledge to fly less. 

They are also trying to lead by example. Dempsey herself recently showed up to a convention in Texas via teleconferencing. “I would have flown there a couple years ago,” she said. “I am no righteous environmentalist. I’ve flown all over the world.” But the prospect of making the trek for a 40-minute lecture and a couple glasses of reception wine, she said, didn’t justify the emissions this time around.

Both Milstein and Dempsey admit that a paradigm shift for academic travel will take legwork and sacrifice. But attitudes can only change, they believe, if the people declining to travel for climate reasons loudly promote the reason behind their decisions.

“It’s a norm in the academy, and a bit of a badge of honour, to travel a lot. It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, look at how many people want me to do things,’” Dempsey says. If faculty and staff see their peers refusing to fly, people might start to think twice – especially, she hopes, those in charge of administrative policy.

Milstein agrees, emphasizing the need to revise academics’ anxiety about being perceived as busy and important. “There’s a myth that if you don’t put yourself out there and be visible you won’t make it,” she says, pointing to Wynes’ research. “He’s noticed there’s no correlation between flying more and being cited in people’s work.”

The other fly in the ointment is more of a visceral one, Milstein says. Even the speediest internet connection can’t make up for what’s gained in a non-virtual setting. She describes conference or speaker invitations as the best perk of a professor’s job, a break from the relative drudgery of administrative tasks. 

“You get to go all around the world, you get to meet amazing people and develop a global community of scholars, some of whom become mentors,” she says. “I have rich encounters with all of these people.” 

Skyping into a conference, meanwhile, feels more like a scheduled meeting than a genuine experience, as though guided by a list of boxes to tick off rather than a natural flow of idea exchange. Screens can dull spontaneity, and fail to stimulate the senses. But in a cost-benefit analysis, personally, the choice for Milstein is clear. “You can’t replace the face to face,” Milstein acknowledges, “but you also can’t replace dying species.”

Milstein credits the interdisciplinary nature of the Peter Wall Institute with the project’s origins. “We were coming from such different fields,” she says. “The Wall Institute envisions that you’ll collaborate. That’s not really what this is…our fields don’t have much to do with this. But coming from different departments – there’s something really refreshing about it.”

Dempsey, too, says the diversity of the people in the room that day helped universalize their approach – and hopes that by generalizing their aims, the project can attract a wide array of signatories. Perhaps, even, some fresh ideas.

“I’ve had my ‘climate awakening,’” she says. But “like many people, I’m very new to thinking about this.”


Zero Emission University was launched in partnership with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, UBC Geography, and the Climate and Coastal Ecosystems Lab. You can read the open letter and sign their pledge here.