A year without flying - almost

Scientists fought energetically to set climate goals, and now they must act. And this is where flying is an ideal test opportunity. Public awareness already exists, technical solutions are unlikely, and giving up flying requires innovation from the scientific community.

This content was published on December 28, 2016 minutes
Christoph Küffer, ETH Zurich,

A year ago, I decided to give up flying (see my previous blog). And for good reason: in order to achieve the climate goals drawn up in Paris and ratified by countries in sufficient number, our society must reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions to zero in the coming decades. The scientific community can set a good example here, and test for itself how institutions can be reformed in order for a climate-friendly society to function.

I like travelling, and I don’t like changing my life. So it would be convenient if I could now report that it’s impossible for a researcher to give up flying. But that’s not the case. Flying less, or not at all, is indeed possible – and sometimes there are benefits. Here are five arguments in favour of not flying.

Firstly: finding practical solutions

Stopping flying seemed as natural to me as starting flying did a few years ago. Often practical measures are sufficient to avoid flying. Exchanging information on the internet, especially with longstanding partners, works well. I’ve participated online in conferences, replaced intercontinental travel by travel within Europe, and frequently watch presentations as videocasts. For many years now, I’ve been writing publications with colleagues I never meet, while fieldwork in a foreign country can be organised through local researchers on site. However, without a personal meeting, it is admittedly difficult to build trust for new partnerships from scratch.

Christoph Küffer is a senior researcher at the Institute of Integrative Biology, ETH Zurich, and a professor of urban ecology at the University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil. zvg

Secondly: a little cheating is permitted

I have to admit, I did fly once last year – to the Azores. And it was quite a blow to my self-esteem. I’d far rather be standing here with a clean copy book, but in fact it led me to the most important finding of my experiment: sensible behaviour must become everyday reality. Saving the climate takes more than just a few well-intentioned individuals to give up flying.

It’s more efficient when everyone plays their part in reducing the amount they fly. A first step would be to simply cut out some flights. To do nothing, however, is not an option for a scientist. Believe me, we are serious about climate change.

Thirdly: the grass is always greener…

As students, our main concern used to be the realisation on Monday morning that we had been at the wrong party on Saturday evening. That’s something economists call opportunity costs: the cost of missed opportunities. If you focus only on what you’re giving up, you don’t see all the benefits of not flying. I’ve gained timeExternal link, and I’ve experienced many new things. For example, through the train window I was able to see with my own eyes the energy revolution in Germany. In Aachen, I travelled past a new wind farm with a black coal-fired power plant in the background; in Bayern, I passed villages crammed with solar panels.

And I’ve contributed to a non-flying infrastructure. Travelling to an advisory council meeting in Lisbon by night train was a charming experience. Unfortunately, night trains in Europe are rapidly being cut; however, I hope to be able to do the same next year.

Fourthly: keeping your feet on the ground

Abstaining from flying has served to increasingly focus my research work on real, local problems in this country. This means that I’m working with colleagues from other disciplines and practitioners here in Switzerland. And that’s exactly why I find not flying exciting – it spurs me to reconsider my role as a scientist in solving environmental problems. Does it really make any sense, say, to jet out to Africa or South America for a few days with some ETH students to teach on a particular case study? Does this help us to come up with real solutions, or are we just escaping from problems on the home front?

Better to fly less often, and to tackle real, thorny issues more vigorously. Better to deal with your own problems – even if there’s no acclaim for it – than to explain to others theirs. Better to help train more scientists from less developed countries than consider ourselves as indispensable experts.

Fifthly: not flying as an incentive for innovation

Why should the discovery of flying be considered such a milestone, while not flying doesn’t feature on any innovation programme? I’d like to suggest that ETH raise a substantial charge on all flights and the money be given to an innovation fund to finance research for a CO2-free university.

A New Year’s wish

Next year I shall also endeavour not to fly. I sincerely hope that 2017 will be a year of many non-fliers; and I’m not the only one with these aspirationsExternal link. ETH too has initiated a mobility platform that serves as a contact and coordination office for sustainable mobility at ETH, and aims to specifically address the dilemma of business air travel.

This article first appeared hereExternal link

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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