Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

SCU Air Travel Emits Pounds of Pollution

What is our role in reducing it?

Kate Cooper

Travel is essential to the success of a university, whether it’s prospective students visiting a campus, student athletes traveling to a game, or professors attending conferences. It is also a significant source of greenhouse gases – in 2013 Santa Clara University funded over 14.4 million miles of air travel [1]. That number includes staff, sports teams, students, and faculty who traveled on university funds.

But even that number doesn’t account for all of the air travel from the SCU community. Air travel associated with study abroad, events like parents weekend or graduation, or freshman orientation are omitted from this number. With the exception of study abroad (students traveled over 4 million miles for study abroad in 20131 [1]), the mileage and emissions for these types of air travel are unknown.

With 14.4 million miles in just university-funded air travel, it is no surprise that air travel encompasses a significant percentage of SCU’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, university-financed air travel released the largest amount of greenhouse gases out of any emissions category, comprising 35.8 percent of our school’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013 (see each category’s emissions here).

In 2013, those 14.4 million miles released over 16 million pounds (7,320.5 metric tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gas emissions. To put these numbers in perspective, the maximum take off weight of a Boeing 747 is 1 million pounds. Now imagine 16 Boeing 747s at maximum weight made of carbon. That is roughly the annual weight of emissions from SCU-financed air travel. Therefore, it’s an important place to start when we think about how to become a carbon neutral campus.

What We Can Do

Reducing air travel emissions is also an apt place to start because there are many measures we can take to reduce our air travel. For instance, it is fairly simple (and more cost effective) to use teleconferencing or online video communication like Skype or Google Hangout for conferences or faculty interviews. However, other measures are less convenient and more expensive. Substituting air travel with public transportation like buses or trains is often more time consuming. Paying a fee to offset your air travel emissions makes air travel more expensive. Nevertheless, SCU should encourage both the simple and the more difficult changes that help us chip away at the 16 million pounds of pollution that are emitted each year from SCU-funded air travel.

A popular and often convenient remedy is to buy offsets. This occurs when an institution like Santa Clara invests in a sustainable project like forest restoration or renewable energy to offset their emissions (Read more about offsets at Santa Clara University). While this is a step in the right direction, its effectiveness in reducing emissions output is questionable because the purchaser can continue polluting as long as it buys offsets. Are we simply paying to continue the actions we know are harmful to human health and the environment? And is this helping us adopt more sustainable practices or allowing us to continue an “addiction” to unsustainable energy? Furthermore, not all offset programs end up reaching their goals. For instance, a reforestation project at the Mount Elgon National Park in Uganda not only displaced local populations without compensation but also shut down 21 years before the program’s completion date. On the other hand, offsets are a good alternative when air travel is unavoidable. If adequate research is done, there is a greater chance of supporting success stories like the Tensas River Basin Project in Louisiana. This project reforested 400 acres of land, which is expected to absorb over 112,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide over the next seven decades. Carbon offsets can serve as another tool in a university’s toolbox to combat climate change when emissions are unavoidable.

How Responsible Are We?

As a university increases its efforts to become more sustainable, many of the tools to reduce its pollution become more expensive and inconvenient. This raises the question: To what extent is a university responsible for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, specifically air travel? Before I begin, I would like to explain how greenhouse gas emissions are categorized. Greenhouse gas emissions are divided into 3 categories: Scope 1, Scope 2, and Scope 3. Scope 1 emissions are direct emissions from, for example, driving university vehicles or heating university buildings. Scope 2 emissions are indirect emissions that come from the purchase of electricity, heat, and steam. Scope 3 emissions account for indirect emissions not included in scope 2, like the emissions from producing purchased materials like desks. It also includes the emissions our waste and university travel generates.

When it comes to air travel, do we ignore it because it’s not counted in our assessment of carbon neutrality for 2015, do we only include air travel the university pays for, or do we also include air travel from programs like orientation or study abroad? It is true that a university exists first and foremost to provide an education to its students and to do so it needs to be financially sound enough to keep its lights on and doors open. I would argue however, that Santa Clara University has both the financial ability and the obligation to mitigate more air travel than that directly financed by the university.

With an endowment of over $760 million in 2013, the school has the financial resources available to keep its lights on and uphold its high academic standards. The school has an obligation whether it’s footing the bill or not because it creates and/or supports the programs like study abroad and orientation that require air travel.  Yet the most compelling reason for reducing air travel and emissions in general lies in Santa Clara University’s professed values. Unlike many other universities, SCU aims to instill a set of values in its students and uphold its Jesuit mission. SCU prides itself on its values for social justice and sustainability. Its stated mission is to educate students for “competence, conscience and compassion” to create a “more humane, just, and sustainable world.” It is only fitting then, that we continue to go above and beyond what other schools are doing to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

For air travel, this means replacing more air travel with teleconferencing and online communication and strongly encouraging public transportation when travel is necessary. It also means educating the campus about the consequences of air travel. Finally, if offsets are to be used, there should be research and follow-up to ensure contributions are truly offsetting pollution.

Many benefits emerge from our air travel, like the chance for students to study abroad or the opportunity for faculty to attend conferences. However, it is important to be acutely aware that our air travel also contributes to issues like poor air quality, habitat destruction, and rising sea levels. Even if it means some inconveniences or added financial costs, Santa Clara University has the responsibility to reduce emissions that harm our health, damage the environment, and threaten the well being of future generations.

[1] University Finance Office data via Lindsey Kalkbrenner at the Office of Sustainability .

Kate Cooper is an SCU student and environmental ethics fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Feb 1, 2015