Published online 21 November 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1250

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Climate researchers 'should cut their carbon footprint'

Jet-setting scientists responsible for substantial greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate change researchers and the agencies that fund their work should do more to cut the community's carbon footprint, says an atmospheric chemist who has calculated the carbon emissions of his colleagues.

AeroplaneFlights to conferences — a necessary evil?Getty

Andreas Stohl examined all the work-related emissions of his fellow researchers at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research, Kjeller, in 2005, 2006 and 2007. He found that travel alone led scientists at the institute to contribute 3.9 to 5.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere per person per year. Most of these emissions came from aeroplanes the researchers boarded to hop around to meetings and conferences on 24 days a year, on average.

The figures are not unusual compared with business professionals or with scientists in many other fields. For instance, the Carbon Neutral Company — an offset retailer based in London — uses a rule of thumb of about 5 tonnes of CO2 of work-related emissions per employee per year — a figure comparable to Stohl's.

But Stohl believes climate change researchers should set an example, but that the way they are funded makes this difficult.

"In Norway, as in other countries, we have funding programmes where we're encouraged to have colleagues in the United States. And, of course, you have to meet. So the funding structure really encourages travel," he says.

Beyond making the puckish point that atmospheric scientists have carbon footprints that are significantly higher than the global average of 4.5 tonnes of CO2 per person per year, Stohl, who normally studies transport processes in the upper atmosphere, says his paper is also a wake-up call for funding agencies.

"It's really easy to get funding to go to some meeting, but much harder to get it to actually get research done," he says.

Hard sums

The paper1, published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, is unusual because it details emissions at an institutional level, rather than for just one particular conference. Stohl's approach gives a more complete picture because it includes informal meetings and project workshops that researchers attend more frequently.

"To my knowledge, such an estimate has never been published in the open literature before," he says. "Many colleagues have approached me after reading the article and a few of them told me that their institutions have done similar estimates but never published them."

But even doing the sums for a conference can be fraught with difficulties. Paolo Laj of the Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, France, was involved in running the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry conference that was held in Annecy, France, in early September. He and his colleagues are trying to ensure that the meeting is carbon neutral. However, only a quarter of the conference participants have so far sent back questionnaires about their travel arrangements.

"Offsetting emissions aside, one important aspect of our planning was to reduce emissions by broadcasting the conference on the Internet," says Laj. "I'm not sure I know of anyone who did not attend for emissions purposes, but more than 200 different IP addresses connected, for roughly 500 attendees who were there in person."

Contradictory messages?

Making it easy for people to reduce their emissions is definitely the way forward, agrees Bill Sneyd, director of advisory services at the Carbon Neutral Company.

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Sneyd says that the Norwegian scientists' emissions are not very high compared to other professions — his company has worked for jet-setting top lawyers who have clocked up more than 25 tonnes in a year.

Like Stohl, though, he despairs at the failure of climate change professionals to set an example. The Carbon Neutral Company has worked for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC), ensuring their 2003 conference was carbon neutral.

"I spoke at another UN event a year later where there was a debate about whether all these UN conferences should be carbon neutral. But some people said that it's beyond the remit of the FCCC," says Sneyd. "If the UN FCCC events are not offset as a policy, why should any other event be?" 

  • References

    1. Stohl, A. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 8, 6499-6504 (2008).
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