How To Be Greener

Spotted on a recent visit to ESA's ESTEC base in Noordwijk

To what extent should climate scientists, who arguably have the best understanding of the calamitous effects of global warming on the planet and its inhabitants, be setting an example in reducing their personal carbon footprint? That was the question raised some time ago in a Notes & Theories Blog article by Jens Rolff, evolutionary biologist at the University of Sheffield. Scientists’ privileged position on the highest echelons of education in society, he argues, gives them a responsibility to set an example to the rest of society in reducing their personal burden on the environment.

Phil Marshall at the University of Oxford raised similar questions some months ago in an interesting opinion piece in Physics World. A study he carried out for the Astro2010 Decadal Survey in the US showed that:

in astronomy it is not the big facilities that are the most polluting, but the astronomers themselves, as they fly all over the world to observatories, conferences and meetings. We estimated that astronomers were averaging some 23,000 air miles per year during the course of their work, which at 1.8 kWh per mile added up (in our simple model) to about 85% of the professional energy consumption of astrophysics. For comparison, the average US citizen uses about 250 kWh per day on transport, heating, lighting, food, consumer goods and so on; US astronomers use an additional 130 kWh per day doing astronomy.

There you go: being a professional astronomer may increase your carbon footprint by half.

There are of course many provisos to this stark figure. The number of astronomers, or even scientists, in the world is tiny compared with the overall population – so the overall contribution to the world’s carbon emissions is very small. I think scientists are not particularly worse, possibly even significantly better, than those in other professions: many people travel a huge amount for their jobs, and you could argue that the question of personal responsibility should be expanded to all of those.

Leaving existential questions aside, if we assume that changing our personal behaviour as astronomers is a valuable thing to do, for whatever reason, how would we do it?

Incidentally, let me get ahead of those of you wanting to out me as the world’s largest hypocrite: when it comes to excessive travelling, I am the absolute worst. Some years ago I calculated that I travelled the Earth’s circumference in a year – and that was a fairly typical year. But part of the problem is that as a junior scientist I’m not always in control of my own calendar, or method of travel. For what it’s worth,  I do make a big effort to use non-air transportation where possible.

From my own experience, I can identify a number of categories that professional work travel falls into for astronomers:

  • conferences
  • team and project meetings
  • observing runs
  • telescope time allocation (TACs) or other types of committee meetings

Conferences are a vital part of the scientist’s calendar. At conferences we present our work to peers, hang out, chat, argue, get drunk, schmooze and generally put our faces out there. Simply being known is hugely important in science, and conferences are the way to achieve that. Matt Burleigh even argued on twitter that conference attendance affects citation counts. I wonder if that’s backed up by evidence?

As projects become bigger, more distributed and international, travel distances inevitably become greater too when collaborators meet. Project meetings constitute the vast majority of my work trips. Often covering just short distances and short period of time, such trips arguably come with the biggest overheads. But getting things done collaboratively with a group of people usually works best when everyone is sitting in the same room.

I have less experience with observing runs and TAC-type meetings, but these seem like the least justified of the lot to me. Many observatories now use queue or service mode observing, or observers can follow the proceedings remotely. ESO still fly observers from Europe to Chile for one or two nights of observations, and that seems a little crazy.

All this travel can quite obviously be reduced significantly by better use of available technology. Telephone and videoconferencing have come a long way and are really very useful tools for productive work meetings. For .Astronomy, we regularly meet over Skype, or recently with Google+ Hangouts. Videoconferencing in particular is often hampered by lack of technical support, and abandoned. My institute blocks chat and video chat protocols from individual computers over our main (and best) network for tenuous security reasons, even though many scientists use these for talking to collaborators around the world.

Besides facilitating meetings of those scientists already working together, web-based technology can and should be used more efficiently for networking within the broader community. All departments have a colloquium or seminar series, or journal club sessions. Small investments of resources could open these events up to a wider international audience, who can actively participate without having to leave their offices.

Taking such events online has the added benefit of minimising barriers of hierarchy that exist within departments, and it can give researchers in smaller departments the opportunity to interact with colleagues at prestigious institutes. In addition, it allows those scientists who are less able to travel because of disabilities or caring responsibilities not to miss out on these events.

Implementing such a system effectively is likely to require some changes to the format of these events, and perhaps a messy period of trial and error before the best scheme is identified. Sharing experiences between departments would certainly help with that. I’ve also noticed that many universities are increasingly centralising their IT facilities, which can reduce the level of “local” support in departments.

There’s also a difference between streaming events live, allowing online interaction, and simply recording them for posting online at a later time. For .Astronomy, we’ve experimented with live streaming and found little benefit. With apologies to all five of you watching the live stream at previous conferences, we’ve decided we won’t be doing that anymore. But we do hope to make the videos of talks available online after the event.

I followed an email discussion recently where some argued that conferences and meetings should be organised in locations that minimise the travel for its participants, i.e. in the geographical centre of gravity, and there’s some merit to that. But that would penalise those countries with smaller astronomy communities, such as some Latin American or African countries. For these communities the visibility they gain from hosting conferences and attracting high profile speakers from the bigger nations is very important for stimulating students and developing their research base.

Where travel is inevitable, governments and funding bodies can do a lot to encourage greener forms of travel. I’m a big fan of train travel, yet sometimes my request to go places by train have been rejected because flying was the cheaper option. In addition, travel time for me counts as personal time and is therefore not covered by a per diem allowance – a long train jurney could therefore leave me more out of pocket than a short flight. On another recent trip, I rented a bike to get around, and was told on my return that I could only be reimbursed for the cost of bus tickets to and from my meeting – even though the bike offered me far greater flexibility and efficiency.

If funders are serious about encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprints, they would make allowances for reasonable additional costs associated with greener forms of travel. They can even negotiate discounts with public transport companies for scientists, as I believe is done here in Germany for government workers.

If cost is an impediment to implementing and supporting better technology for collaborating at a distance, institutes should be allowed to factor such costs into grant overheads. Or perhaps funding bodies should allow travel funds to be redirected for such purposes.

Efficiency is another consideration. Perhaps we should concentrate on lumping trips together so we can achieve maximal productivity for minimal mileage. At MPIA we have lots of visitors from US institutions throughout the summer; these scientists can spend the whole summer conferencing and schmoozing around Europe on just one transatlantic return flight. While not everyone can afford to spend one or several months away from home at a time, this is far less energy-intensive than making 5 intercontinental trips a year.

These are just some of my thoughts on the topic. If you’re interested in learning more or keeping up to date with these discussions, you can join the Low Energy Astrophysics community that was set up in 2009. On the wiki you can also sign up for the mailing list.