Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century

The research community has highlighted for several decades the implications of greenhouse gas emissions for climate change. In response, world governments have agreed to limit global temperature change to 2°C, which requires drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In advanced economies, a commitment to a 2°C limit generally represents a reduction of emissions of between 80-95% from the 1990 baseline. Despite this, emissions from international aviation increased by 53 % between 1990 and 2011 in those countries. Academic researchers are among the highest emitters, primarily as a result of emissions from flying to conferences, project meetings, and fieldwork. Here we review the rationale for and alternatives to the current high-carbon research culture. We find no clear obstacles to justify an exemption for the research community from the emission reduction targets applied elsewhere. While stimulating ideas and creating personal links of trust are important benefits of face-to-face meetings, these benefits may be outweighed by the opportunities to reach much wider communities by developing and using new social media and online platforms. We argue that the research community needs a roadmap to reduce its emissions following government targets, which ironically are based on findings of the research community. A roadmap to a low-carbon research space would need simple monitoring, an example of which is presented here and documents the Tyndall Travel Tracker, incentives from international and national research platforms and funders, and a fundamental change in the research culture to align the walk with the talk. Such a change in practice would strengthen the trust of the public in research.

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