To the moon and back 250 times
Polluting planes or slow trains?
Social psychology associate professor Ellen van der Werff recently debated whether to take a train or a plane to a conference in Stockholm. For once, she decided to take the train. She arrived at the central station in Groningen at six in the morning to wait for the bus to take her to Leer, Germany, since the trains weren’t running on that track due to a destroyed bridge.
The bus was thirty minutes late. She barely made it to Leer in time, where her train to Bremen was also delayed. She arrived in Bremen just in time to dash across the station to catch the train to Hamburg, where she only minutes to catch her connection to Copenhagen. From there, she would finally get a transfer to Stockholm.
95 million kilometres of flying produces approximately 15,000,000 kilos of CO2* in exhaust. This is comparable to:
21 million loads of laundry
7.5 million ten-minute hot showers
8 million days (22,000 years) of uninterrupted television
*This is not an exact number: planes emit more CO2 on short flights than long ones; taking off is what costs the most fuel.
This calculation was made using only the flights paid for by the RUG itself. Many academics use money from grants to pay for flights, or the inviting institutes pay for them. Those trips were not used in the calculation.
She arrived at her destination at nine p.m, after fifteen hours of travel. ‘If I’d flown, I would have left Groningen at ten in the morning and arrived at Stockholm late in the afternoon’, she says.
It takes character to knowingly opt for the least comfortable and least convenient travel option. Not everyone is so longsuffering. So the RUG is piling up the air miles. A conference in Singapore here; a symposium in Los Angeles there; a meeting in Berlin over the weekend; an extended convention in Cape Town: RUG employees fly approximately 5,500 times a year.
Over the past three years, the RUG community has flown 95,000,000 kilometres, more than 31 million a year. That’s enough for 250 trips to the moon or 2,400 trips around the equator. In 2018, CO2 exhaust from work trips accounted for 16 percent of the RUG’s total carbon footprint.
Dick Jager, coordinator for the Green Office (the RUG’s sustainability platform) recognises Van der Werff’s struggle. He generally prefers train-travel, but sometimes it is just not an option: too much hassle, too many costs, too time-consuming.
This year he flew to Cork, Ireland for a work trip. ‘I looked into going by train’, he says. ‘Groningen to Amsterdam to Calais to London to Dublin (by boat) to Cork: it takes a whole day to get there. A plane trip is ninety minutes and costs only twenty bucks. No train can beat that, which is insane. So I understand the choice that some people make to fly.’
Interestingly enough, the Cork conference was organised by the University of Jakarta, which is responsible for the annual GreenMetric Ranking: a list of the seven hundred most sustainable universities in the world. The RUG is number 7 on the list, while Wageningen University & Research is number 1. Jager: ‘They flew to Cork as well, though.’
Cheaper, easier, faster
Flying is cheaper, easier, and faster, says Nadja Zeiske, a PhD candidate of environmental psychology at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences. Together with Ellen van der Werff, she has a conference in Plymouth, in the UK. It would take thirteen hours to get there by train. ‘But it’s an hour and a half by plane, so six hours in total.’
Van der Werff has a Summer School in Barcelona this July. ‘It would take just inside a day to get there by train, but cost twice as much as flying. Students are coming, and they have to pay for some of it themselves. We can’t do that to them.’ Another interesting detail: the Barcelona conference is about sustainability.
Nadja Zeiske wonders which is worse: being stressed out by train-travel or ashamed of plane-travel? Personally, she tries to combine her work trips and her vacations as much as possible. ‘That eases my conscience a little.’
Van der Werff says the financial difference between the two options is just too big to change people’s behaviour. It may have worked for energy conservation and recycling, but not when it comes to flying. It makes sense, she says. ‘A return to London is only 40 euro by plane, while the train costs 160. And it just takes so much longer. The difference is so great that it’s harder for people to make that change.’
Because of a recent change in how they are being registered, we only have the numbers for destinations over 2017, although it’s unlikely that other years differ much.
Last week, the RUG announced that they’ll be limiting the number of work trips by plane. Employees are no longer allowed to fly for work if their destination can be reached by train within six hours. Flying is also prohibited if the destination is less than five hundred kilometres away. How this rule will work practically is still a bit of a mystery.
The distance between Groningen and Berlin by road is 577 kilometres, but 465 kilometres as the crow flies. The travel time by train varies greatly as well, depending on which train you get: one trip will take five hours and forty minutes, while another takes six and a half hours.
Then there’s the broken railroad bridge to Leer, which means the travel times from Groningen to Germany are even longer. It might take two more years before that bridge is fixed. ‘The new guidelines are part of a long-term view’, says RUG spokesperson Jorien Bakker. The bridge will be fixed eventually, she says, and the train companies are always working on better and faster connections. The university will be publishing an FAQ about flying and train travel to make the guidelines clearer.
Nevertheless, the guidelines don’t apply to many common destinations such as Munich, Basel, Milan, and Barcelona. That’s unfortunate, because 70 percent of RUG trips are to these European destinations, which are all easily reached by train.
Jager would have liked to see the kilometre limit moved up to seven hundred kilometres; it would be more effective. ‘But people reacted negatively to that. They didn’t want their freedoms restricted.’
Wel, deze @PThU_NL medewerker uit Groningen had op de dag dat de #RUG de academische vliegkilometers ter discussie stelt, zijn eerste videoconferentie met 5 deelnemers uit 4 tijdzones en 4 continenten. Leuk onderzoek doen, zonder te hoeven reizen. https://t.co/hFQQ9dZzhT
— Theo Pleizier (@theopleizier) 15 mei 2019
The university could do more, he says: they could provide a decision tree for travelling employees. It would include not just the kilometre or the time limit, but also the necessity of the trip. Jager: ‘It would ask whether it’s strictly necessary for an employee to make the trip. Could they communicate through Skype or video-conferencing, perhaps?’ Several faculties at the RUG have excellent conferencing rooms. There are numbers on how often these are actually used.
Van der Werff: ‘If you book a work trip, the first option you’re presented with is always flying rather than the train. They might want to switch that to encourage employees to make a more deliberate choice. According to psychological research, it might be effective if the university starts saying that train trips are the new standard, rather than actively forcing people to stop flying.’
Erasmus University professor Liesbeth Enneking decided to stop flying a few years ago. In Erasmus Magazine, she said she doesn’t think conferences are all that important.
‘Academic conferences really aren’t all that big a deal. We collectively decided that they’re important for our CVs, but I never really met any peers that proved to be important connections. Conferences can be good for one’s ego, and they make for nice trips, but that’s it.’
RUG employees admit that these work trips are mainly fun or a good way to see some of the rest of the world. But Van der Werff says they’re actually useful. ‘You make new contacts at conferences. That’s important: it’s much easier to forge international bonds if you already know people.’ She’s used Skype once or twice. ‘It’s all right, but it’s not really the same.’
There are limits though, she says. She once flew to China for two days because she was giving a talk in Beijing. ‘If I’m honest it was a really great experience. But it didn’t sit right with me.’
Dick Jager is familiar with these stories. ‘I recently heard about two employees who’d flown to Madrid just to attend a two-hour meeting. A two-hour meeting! Surely there’s a better way to go about this.’
Work trips for each faculty/department, from high to low (2017 figures, as 2018 figures weren’t available)*:
Science and Engineering: 1993
Office of the University: 1041
Economy and Business: 512
Behavioural and Social Sciences: 433
Spatial Sciences: 269
Centre for Information Technology: 87
University College: 43
Services department: 10
* Research at faculties such as Science and Engineering (and Arts and FEB to a lesser extent) is more internationally oriented, which means their employees make more work trips. The size of the faculty also plays a role.