One Planet Week 2020: Carbon neutral global development research
On Monday 10 February, students and staff were invited to hear from five panelists, of different disciplines and at different career stages, discussing the practicalities of carrying out global development research in a sustainable, carbon-neutral way.
On the panel were: Dr Hanne Cottyn, History (Research Associate); Dr Jon Green, SEI (Senior Researcher); Dr Eleanor Jew, Environment and Geography (Lecturer); Dr Joshua Kirshner, Environment and Geography (Senior Lecturer); Dr Papiya Mazumdar, Health Sciences (Research Fellow).
Each sharing their own experiences and unique perspective, the issues discussed included:
- Is global development research inherently more carbon-intensive than other research?
- Could global development research be just as effective if done on a lower-carbon model?
- How feasible is it to replace air flight with ground travel for global development researchers?
- Is a low-carbon research model incompatible with career development and promotion procedures which emphasise the importance of international activities and collaborations?
All participants were of the opinion that travel is vital for fieldwork. Fieldwork helps researchers to solidify partnerships and nurture long term collaborations which have a bearing on future career development. Fieldwork can therefore be particularly beneficial for researchers early in their careers. But the panel agreed that longer trips, where different activities can be combined, are preferable to making shorter but more frequent trips.
While most people would rather attend events in person, advances in technology make attending conferences virtually an increasingly viable option, with many of the panellists having done so with some success. In many countries in the Global South, video conferencing is already widely used, although this is often due to lack of resources, rather than purely for environmental purposes. Since much global development work focuses on these countries, it was suggested that more opportunities for in-country partners to lead projects or be funded properly to allow them to take a more active and equitable role in data collection could mean less reliance on travel of UK-based researchers.
Using trains rather than planes was highlighted as a more environmentally friendly option for research travel, although the additional cost and time taken can be prohibitive, especially when research funds are limited. It was mentioned that in the long-term it would take lobbying of the Government to make train travel relatively more affordable and therefore a more viable choice in terms of cost.
Some other institutions have examples of best practice in the form of tools which help individuals make a decision on the type of travel that’s most appropriate for their needs. Using a ‘decision tree’ is one approach which could help with this.
The ‘sustainable travel policy’ adopted by Ghent University was referred to as one standout example:
“Multiple departments are already taking the lead by choosing videoconferencing, choosing not to fly to cities easily reachable without an airplane, by compensating their C02 emissions and by adding an extra check-up when it comes to the value of faraway conferences. These measures are now firmly anchored in the sustainable travel policy”. (Ghent University Sustainable Travel Policy)
At present, the University of York doesn’t offer specific guidance for employees regarding carbon emissions, which leaves individuals responsible for making their own decisions about travelling. The event highlighted how some in the global development research community (and beyond) at the University of York would welcome more constructive guidance and information on what constitutes a realistic carbon emission target and what we as individuals need to and can do to meet such a target.
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