Carbon Footprints of Conservation Biologists: A missing link?

About a month ago, I wrote a post on “One big reason climate skeptics don’t believe in [anthropogenic] climate change“. In it, I used my own personal experiences to point out the hypocrisy inherent in the life styles of some ecologists. Although I was trying specifically not to single out individuals and places, some people did, inevitably, get offended. I apologize profusely if you were in that category. The whole point of the article was to highlight a much larger picture based on my experiences and observations, not to pass judgement.

Well, a friend of mine (code name: ‘Bearded Bear‘. No doubt he will appear in future posts, usually as a badger) read my earlier post and had a few, friendly words of disagreement with me about some particulars. However, I think he largely agreed with me (correct me if I’m wrong, BB). In a follow up, he sent me a recent opinion letter (by recent, I mean 3 years old) from Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment written by a bevy of ecological bigwigs, including Helen Fox (marine conservation scientist for the World Wildlife Fund), Peter Kareiva (chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy), and eleven others (sorry, I couldn’t list you all, as much as I wanted to).

This letter, titled “Why do we fly? Ecologists’ sins of emission” points out that conservation biologists tend to leave a larger carbon footprint than the average American. Despite having a 16% lower carbon footprint than average Americans in every day life (due to driving hybrids, bicycling, etc.), the high amount of travelling to and from conferences, research sites, etc., mean that conservation biologists have, on average, more than double the carbon footprint of average Americans. (Also, a side note, even though conservation biologists have a 16% lower ‘everyday’ carbon footprint than most Americans, they still use 3x more carbon than the global average reported in this letter).

The authors provide a nice table describing well-justified and poorly justified reasons to fly, as well as providing some solutions for the problem. The authors posit that the crux of the issue is that there are too many meetings and ecology, as a field, has done a poor job of integrating technology into their meetings (i.e. videoconferencing, etc) that would reduce the need to attend in person. If ecologists collectively reduce travel by ~30%, we can save 42,000 tons of carbon per year (about 7,300 cars on the road). That’s a lot of carbon saved in a very simple way.

Granted, the authors only surveyed 13 conservation biologists (themselves, actually) and the estimate of carbon use by the average American was not rigorously calculated (it was an Op-Ed piece, after all), but the point is well made. Whereas the average American uses more carbon (slightly) in their daily lives, frequent travelling more than wipes out any carbon-conscious decisions made at home by environmentally friendly scientists.

Needless to say, I liked this letter. If you have access to it, read it or find someone who can send you a copy. It’s short (1.5 pages) and to the point. I would like to say, emphatically, I am not calling conservation biologists hypocrites. As stated, when living at home we tend to be fairly good about having a lower carbon footprint than the average American (assuming, of course, that all ecologists have carbon footprints similar to the 13 authors of this letter). However, Fox et al. make a very good case for ecologists to be a little more ‘carbon savvy’ when it comes to travel plans.

UPDATE: As I think about this more, I’m not entirely sure that the estimate of 7,300 cars off the road is reasonable. The authors equate not flying with not driving, but there is a fundamental difference: if conservation biologists choose not to fly, those planes fly anyway (and still burn fuel). If a conservation biologist chooses not drive, then the car doesn’t run (thereby saving fuel). So, will reducing travel by conservation biologists really help reduce carbon emissions? Probably not at the population level, but it certainly reduces an individual’s carbon footprint. However, reducing an individual carbon footprint doesn’t necessarily equate to lower overall emissions if the fuel gets burnt anyway. I think that this letter was in a similar vein as my earlier post: Individual actions like riding bikes or reducing travel might not make much of an overall effect, but it sends a messages and sets an example. As always, correct me if I’m wrong.


4 thoughts on “Carbon Footprints of Conservation Biologists: A missing link?

  1. I would suggest that it is important to compare same with same here. Travel requirements for ecology as a discipline is unusual compared with those of “average” although not all Americans. There’s far flung field work to do, and depots to provision. Much of the scholarly work is international and demands personal contact, at conferences and workshops. These are all features of many scholarly fields. Consider oceanigraphy or geophysics. These require major moviing infrastructure.

    Many intellectual professions like engineering demand regular long distance travel. True, we can try to substitute lower impact conveyance, such as rail for air and car, but that requires planning and foresight, and a commitment from low level management to make it so.

    • The authors explicitly acknowledge that ecology (and academic fields in general) is more travel intensive than most other careers, but they also state that much of this travel is extraneous. The table from their letter that I mentioned describes ‘well-justified’ reasons to travel and ‘poorly-justified’ reasons to travel. For example, much travel could be cut out by building collaborations and asking for assistance from local researchers for field work (granted, this takes a huge amount of trust, but its not impossible or impractical). The authors also list networking and maintaining contacts (albiet with some restrictions) as well-justified reasons for travel. I don’t think they are under any illusions that we can eliminate traveling altogether, but there are a myriad of steps we can take to reduce ‘extraneous’ travel.

  2. Nate, you beat me in posting a blog post on the ‘Why do we fly: Ecologists’ sins of emission article!’ I had already started a blog post draft… 😉 But really – it’s an incredibly haunting idea, that despite their efforts to reduce emissions at home (e.g. driving fuel efficient cars such as hybrids), particularly well educated folk, conservation biologists, might be some of the worst CO2 polluters because it’s part of the lifestyle to fly. Our highly valued ‘education’ does not seem to do anything useful here. I suppose that even conservation biologists may be ignorant of how their choices add up to produce carbon (relative importances, etc.) because it’s not a research focus… this is until using a carbon footprint calculator. Making choices about transportation is not a science, and so we participate with the rest in the tragedy of the commons. Enjoying your other articles too. Great blog.

  3. Great post. Just tweeted from @flyingless . Consider encouraging colleagues to take action on this issue, with constructive feedback for universities and professional associations.

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