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?