Why are we focusing on flying? The background

Increased emissions from business travel

Pre-COVID business travel accounted for 22% of the University’s total carbon footprint. Most of our travel-related emissions come from flying, and both domestic and international flights have increased sharply in recent years.

Graph: UofG carbon footprint 2018-19 [total 60,358 tonnes CO2e]

 Gas/Oil ElectricityFlight business travelCommutingRefrigerationWasteFleetWater
tonnes CO2e 17500 16990 13009 10021 1265 685 430 273

Our footprint equates to the annual carbon cost of producing the food for 22,999 meat eaters, 43,403 vegetarians, or 57,220 vegans (based on Scarborough, P., Appleby, P.N., Mizdrak, A. et al. Climatic Change (2015) 125: 179-192)

Flight-related emissions are unequally distributed

Current data do not allow a breakdown of air travel by seniority at the University of Glasgow. Evidence from other universities suggests that the use of flights for business travel is unequally distributed among academic staff, with a small proportion of individuals accounting for most emissions.

For example, a 2012 survey of staff at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research found that 20% of individuals were responsible for 55% of flight-related emissions, and seniority was a strong predictor of flights. Beyond the UK, similar results have been shown in studies at the University of British Columbia (where 25% of individuals were responsible for 80% of emissions), the University of Maine, and of attendees at various academic conferences.

In the Tyndall Centre survey seniority, geographical location, and flying for personal reasons were significant predictors of flying for business. Similarly, the UBC project and other research has found that seniority is associated with much higher flight-related emissions.

The unequal distribution of flight-related emissions means that those who travel most – the most senior staff – can do most to reduce the University’s emissions. Simultaneously, the benefits of travel for career development may vary across career stages or for those based in the Global South. In planning to achieve targets, senior staff can take this into account in decision making.

Graph: Business travel carbon emissions, flight, rail, fleet and ‘grey’ fleet (domestic car use) 2016-17 to 2018-19 [tonnes CO2e]

 2016-17 2017-18 CO2e2018-19 CO2e
Flights - domestic 718.013 441.679 871.039
Flights - non-domestic 8401.759 12035.783 12139.18
Rail 151.521 151.355 105.681
Fleet 165.557 165.557 151.3
Grey fleet 67.962 67.962 110.171