Opinion: Here’s how GU could slash its largest source of carbon emissions

Text by Áine Kelly-Costello of Klimatstudenterna*


It was last Christmas that Gothenburg University international student Florence Smith decided to try and give up flying for good. Why? “You start to look at it differently when you put it into numbers,” she tells me. “When you realise how CO2 emissions of a single flight can equal the yearly carbon footprint of an entire family, you really begin to question the ethics behind it. And of course, that’s without even beginning to consider the impacts of atmospheric warming on ecosystems, which is a whole other horror show.” 

I applaud Smith for taking that stand. I’m from New Zealand and I travelled across the world to study at GU, so my own relationship with air travel is more fraught. I’d rather not suggest cutting people off from living in countries far from their own, visiting family on the other side of the world on important occasions or banning international academic gatherings overnight the way COVID-19 has. But one thing is certain: air travel under business as usual is only set to grow, and if it’s in our collective interest to preserve a thriving planet, then it’s in that same interest to work urgently, creatively and constantly on finding ways to reduce the emissions it’s generating, in kinder ways than have been forced upon us by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, here at GU, there is one such solution which would both reduce emissions as soon as it was implemented, as well as set the tone for further decisive and constructive climate leadership from the Vice-Chancellor and other decision-makers. GU could ban business-related flights under 500 km, now. The University could ask all of its employees to take the bus, train or ferry to Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo. A climate action group I’m part of called Klimatstudenterna or Climate Students has partnered with unions and sustainability groups across GU to call on our Vice-Chancellor Eva Viberg to do just that.

We’re not policy experts, and we acknowledge that there could perhaps be medical or other exceptions based on good reason for which other travel options don’t work, where an occasional shorter flight is justified. That’s fine. But if we let the unknowns about the exceptions stop us from having a conversation about setting a new paradigm, which involves travelling on the train, bus and ferry and not by air, we are in trouble. In 2018, flights under 500 km contributed to 7% of GU’s emissions and are projected to make up 5% of emissions for 2019. It’s time for the University to take a stand and squash that figure completely.

Universities aren’t just like any other institution with a carbon footprint. As disseminators of rigorous, peer-reviewed research, and educators of many of society’s future leaders, the decisions they make influence our societies’ moral compass. That’s especially important when we need to collectively be taking action in line with the 1.5° goal of the Paris agreement. 

Although a ban on short flights in my home country of New Zealand would currently be a challenge because we don’t have the rest of the ground travel infrastructure in place, here in mainland Europe it’s a very reasonable ask. A recent European Investment Bank survey found 3 in 5 Europeans would support an outright ban on short-haul flights. We are advocating a ban on these flights rather than the University’s current suggestion of a more effective carbon levy system. That’s because an outright ban would be put in place without regard to the particular financial capacity of the decision-making institutions within the University, and most importantly, because it means reducing emissions now where we can, rather than paying to pollute.

I expect many of GUu’s international students, like me, are uncertain about our futures after we finish our degrees. I haven’t ruled out moving back home to New Zealand, and I won’t take my decision about travelling to the other side of the world lightly. But I would find it a hopeful and uplifting sign if the University I came all this way to study at heeded the joint call of its unions, sustainability groups and individuals and put a stop to its short flights for good.


Áine Kelly-Costello campaigns for climate action at GU with Klimatstudenterna. She is studying a Masters in Investigative Journalism at GU.

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