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Addressing the Problem of Air Travel Emissions

Kate Cooper

Air travel emissions are almost always a sizable portion of a university's greenhouse gas emissions. The amount each university emits annually varies widely, with some emitting less than a million pounds of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) and others emitting over 74.7 million pounds of CO2e. I recently wrote about the harm air travel imposes on the environment and the university's responsibility to reduce it. Once the university community is educated about air travel and understands its ethical obligation, action is the next step. Here are some practical solutions Santa Clara University and others can take to reduce air travel emissions.

Track Mileage

Tracking air travel is the first step a school can take towards lowering its emissions and assuming responsibility. Air travel funded by the school is usually easier to track than privately purchased air travel, as reimbursement forms usually have enough information to calculate miles traveled. For privately funded air travel, schools could use voluntary surveys to gather data. If response rates are low, a school could institute an annual mandatory survey, similar to the mandatory quarterly course evaluations at SCU and other universities. Parents could receive a voluntary survey about their university-related air travel when paying bills online. Finally, a school could estimate air travel based on where the student body is from. The miles from a round-trip could be multiplied by an estimation of how often students travel home each year. Parents' air travel could be calculated by an estimation of the number of times an average parent travels to the school. Emissions from those miles could then be calculated.

Here are some options for how to track air travel:

Option 1
Count emissions from:
  • University-funded air travel for purposes such as:

- Athletic team travel

- Faculty travel for conferences, projects, grants

- Students traveling on behalf of the university

- Consultants, speakers, lecturers, visiting professors, and visiting students providing "professional services" to the University1

- Potential faculty/staff

- Interviews

Option 2
Count emissions from:
  • Option 1(University-funded air travel)
  • Student air travel for purposes such as:

    -Summer orientation

    -Study Abroad

    -Travelling during breaks:





Option 3
Count emissions from:
  • Option 1(University-funded air travel)
  • Option 2(Student air travel)
  • Other air travel to a university from:

-Prospective Students

*Admitted students day

*Campus visits


*Family weekends

*Campus visits

-Move in days


Spread Awareness About Air Travel's Environmental Impact

One way to increase these voluntary actions is to educate the university about the environmental impacts from air travel. The amount of emissions that air travel produces often surprises people and influence their behavior. For instance, a one-way flight from Seattle to SFO emits 1,262 pounds of CO2e per person. Comparisons between the amount of pollution generated by air travel and train travel for instance, could give many people a reason to alter their traveling choices.

Educate Others About Alternatives

It is important to get the word out to students, faculty, and staff about ways to reduce their air travel. Alternatives such as teleconferencing should be more widely advertised to faculty and staff. A school's transportation office can publish sustainable travel options, like public transportation and bike routes to common destinations. The transportation office could also create a travel board page for the campus community in order to facilitate carpooling.2 Information could also be attached to student travel grants to encourage eco-friendly modes of transportation. Additionally, information could be attached to travel reimbursement forms to encourage cleaner travel in the future.

An example of promoting both awareness about the environmental impacts of air travel and education about alternatives:

Use Teleconferencing

Teleconferencing includes video and audio communication, and is one of the most popular and effective substitutes for air travel. Prices range from free videoconferencing services to teleconferencing equipment that costs several thousand dollars. Yet even the most expensive equipment, over time, is less expensive than the airfare, hotel stays, and other costs associated with a physical meeting. For instance, substituting a round-trip flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles with teleconferencing only once would save several hundred dollars and prevent 626 pounds of CO2e emissions.3 Teleconferencing provides significant financial and environmental benefits, and in most cases achieves the original objectives for a meeting. Faculty, students and staff should consider if a flight is absolutely necessary given the availability of this technology.

Limit Air Travel Reimbursements and/or Cap Travel Budgets

Financial incentives are an effective way to reduce air travel emissions. Limiting reimbursements for air travel while fully reimbursing bus and train travel could give people a compelling reason to opt for more sustainable forms of transportation4. Limitations could be based on whether other alternatives (teleconferencing, bus, train) were feasible, and on the necessity of the travel. Schools could also create a cap on travel budgets. Each department could reduce a certain percentage of their emissions from prior years. For instance, if SCU reduced 2013 mileage of air travel by 2%, it would lower pollution by 320,000 lbs. of CO2e. With 5% reduction, pollution would drop by 800,000 lbs. of CO2e and with a 10% reduction pollution would drop by 1,600,000 lbs. of CO2e. Because air travel is such an emissions-heavy way to travel, even a small reduction can have a large impact on emissions.

Reschedule Student Breaks and Orientation

Student breaks and events could be rescheduled to significantly reduce air travel. At Santa Clara University, for instance, students leave school for a week of Thanksgiving Break, travel back for two more weeks of school, and leave school again for Winter Break. Because most students travel during Thanksgiving Break, thousands of pounds of pollution from air (and automobile) travel are unnecessarily emitted. If this scheduling were changed, less air and automobile travel would occur and emissions would be reduced by thousands of pounds each year. Thanksgiving break could either be shortened or school could start earlier so that Thanksgiving and Winter Break could be combined into one break.

Other university scheduling also unnecessarily pollutes the atmosphere. At Santa Clara University, freshman orientation occurs throughout the summer. This means students, and often their parents, travel to campus once in the summer and again weeks later to move into the dorms. If orientation sessions were combined and scheduled the week before move-in, thousands of pounds of pollution would be saved. While these options could potentially present logistical inconveniences, they are worth considering in light of the pollution they could prevent each year.

Reduce Air Travel That Cannot Be Substituted

Sometimes either teleconferencing is insufficient or bus or train travel is not practical. In that case, faculty, students, and staff could attend an event every other year, for instance, instead of every year.5 They can calculate how much pollution they would prevent when considering whether to fly.

Make Carbon Offsets a Part of Study Abroad Costs

The Study Abroad Office could add carbon offsets onto the costs students pay to study abroad. While unlikely to prevent air travel, it would at least somewhat take account of the environmental costs. It may also bring about awareness of the harm air travel imposes on human health and the environment.

Do the Right Thing

Every university has and will have air travel emissions that exacerbate climate change and contaminate the air we breathe. Luckily, universities have the power to act ethically to reduce those emissions. Some of the options require some effort and others may be inconvenient, but it is my hope that universities will act as a leader and do what's right.

A summary of strategies to reduce air travel emissions:

ActionPotential DrawbacksPotential Benefits
Track Air Mileage Additional administrative work More accurately measure progress and set targets
Spread Awareness About Air Travel's Environmental Impact No anticipated drawbacks Air travel reduced and/or replaced with more sustainable traveling options
Educate Others About Alternatives No anticipated drawbacks Air travel reduced and/or replaced with more sustainable traveling options
Teleconferencing No face-to-face contact Saves money and reduces emissions
Limit Air Travel Reimbursements Could limit the ability to travel Air travel reduced and/or replaced with more sustainable traveling options
Cap on Travel Budgets Could limit the ability to travel Air travel reduced and/or replaced with more sustainable traveling options
Reschedule Student Breaks and Orientation Logistical inconveniences Significantly reduce emissions associated with all forms of transportation
Reduce Air Travel That Cannot Be Substituted Miss an event Saves money and reduces emissions
Make Carbon Offsets a Part of Study Abroad Costs Study abroad would become more expensive Partially offset and raise awareness about harm imposed on the environment

1"Traveling on University Business." University Policy Library. University of Minnesota, n.d. Web. 14 April 2015.

2"Climate Action Implementation Plan." ACUPCC. Middlebury College, 28 Aug. 2008. Web. 12 Jan 2015.

3"Calculate Your Carbon Footprint." Terrapas. n.p, n.d. Web. 14 Nov. 2014.

4Meaux, Shelly. "Loyola University New Orleans Climate Action Plan." ACUPCC. Loyola University Sustainability Committee,1 June 2012. Web. 13 Feb. 2015

5"Climate Action Implementation Plan." ACUPCC. Middlebury College, 28 Aug. 2008. Web. 12 Jan 2015.

Kate Cooper was a 2014-15 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Jun 1, 2012