The Environmental Impact of Academic Travel

Gal Kramer is a recent graduate from the Department of Geography and Institute for the Study of International development. She has spent the past year studying the environmental impact of long-distance trips made for academic purposes.

Kramer worked for Professor Manaugh, Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and McGill School of Environment. As a research assistant, she analyzed data from the campus-wide travel survey that was conducted in 2013. The survey asked questions of both daily commutes and long-distance travel to more than 5,000 students, faculty, and staff. “To understand the data, we first mapped all the long-distance trips that were being taken and for what purpose,” she explained. “Then, we were able to estimate the overall travel-related greenhouse gas emissions of academic related long-distance trips. For example, we found that the yearly carbon emissions for flights related to work or study was between 11, 285 and 14,844 tons for both students and faculty. Moreover, we found that 92% of faculty made at least one long-distance trip in the six months before the survey, and take roughly three plane trips per year.”

Kramer said that the research was guided by a notion that there is a gap between the university’s stride towards sustainability and its desire to be an internationally renowned research institute, which inevitably requires travel for research, conferences, and other events. After analyzing the data, Kramer calculated possible scenarios that would reduce the carbon emissions of long distance travel. “If all faculty plane trips of less than 500km were replaced with rail travel, there would be a reduction of 24% in emissions. If faculty were to take one less plane trip per year, emissions would be even further decreased,” she said. “We also looked at decision making related to long-distance travel frequency and found that respondents who booked their trips using the McGill Travel Desk took twice as many trips as those who did not.”

Since concluding her research, Kramer hopes that the university will use the findings to inform the future policy for long-distance travel. “To be fully environmentally conscious, the university needs to be aware of emissions caused by long-distance travel and prioritize what trips are taken and by what modes,” she said. For more information on this project, contact Assistant Professor Kevin Manaugh.

Are you undertaking research relating to social, economic, or environmental sustainability? Tell your story by contacting sustainability [at] mcgill.ca.

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