Business air travel has to be reduced further if KTH is going to reach its long-term environmental goals, says Göran Finnveden. (Photo: TT)

Emissions remain high, despite reductions

Published Jun 12, 2015

Internal carbon taxes and a discussion concerning those researchers and teachers who really need to travel; these are just a few of the proposals for reducing KTH’s carbon footprint. Even if the emissions from travel by employees have declined, they are still fairly high in a national and global perspective.

KTH’s environmental ambitions are challenged by the internationalisation of the research community. Global networks and collaboration entail long-distance university-related travel but this has an impact on the environment. How are we to balance the equation?

Göran Finnveden, Vice-President for Sustainable Development at KTH, concedes that there is a conflict of interests but he does not think that one should exaggerate the conflict. These differing ambitions can, indeed, go hand-in-hand by way of environmentally-friendly means of transport and through holding more virtual meetings using the latest technology, he believes.

Göran Finnveden

“My feeling is that researchers are increasingly meeting up on digital venues such as Skype and also that more are choosing to travel by train rather than flying.”

Finnveden highlights KTH’s latest travel statistics - in two years, the carbon dioxide emissions in connection with university-related travel have declined by one third: from 1.6 to 1.1 tonne per employee. The reduction is surprisingly large, he says. It means that KTH’s present environmental objective for university-related travel has already been achieved by a wide margin.

“The statistics are preliminary but if they are confirmed then that is very good news,” Finnveden says.

Current levels not acceptable

At the same time – compared with other public bodies and in relation to global environmental objectives – the level of emissions is high. Like several large universities, KTH is placed high on the list over those organisations that cause most emissions during flights. KTH’s position, in fifth place, does not look good, Finnveden says.

“We need to continue to cut emissions, the current levels are not acceptable in the long term and I would prefer to see that we had a batter placing on the list.”

On a wider scale, the challenges are even greater, he points out. If the UN’s climate goals are to be reached, the average Swede’s total emissions in Sweden must decline from about 5 tonnes a year to around 1 tonne in 2050 – that is to say the same level where the average KTH traveller happens to be.

“One could say that we at KTH already consume in flights alone our portion in present circumstances. To this should be added all the other emissions we cause as private persons.”

As a researcher, does one have a special responsibility to live up to the global objectives of eco-friendly travel?
“Both yes and no. Yes, since KTH has the ambition to be associated with sustainable development and we wish to be at the leading edge of technological developments, one example being by holding virtual meetings. At the same time, in research there is a greater need to travel than in many other professions.”

Breaking norms and changing attitudes

All in all, a series of measures are required to cut down emissions of carbon dioxide from university-related travel, Finnveden says. Besides a sharp leap in technology with reduced emissions from aircraft this also involves breaking norms and changing attitudes to bring about new travel patterns and behaviour.

Among other things, there is a need to discuss which researchers and teachers require to travel and why – possibly younger researchers should be prioritised; they have the greatest need for networking internationally in order to get established within their research fields, he believes.

Finnveden is keen to see a stronger support system: it should be simpler to book IT solutions for virtual meetings while travel agencies need to be better at offering eco-sensitive means of transport.

On the KTH travel blog  The Travelling Scientist  he proposes the introduction of an internal carbon dioxide tax. Eco-taxes already exist at other seats of learning and could be used to cover extra costs incurred on choosing train journeys and holding virtual meetings, in his opinion.

“This would be to practice what we preach,” he says. “Several of our own transport researchers point to the importance of financial incentives in favouring eco-sensitive travel. A carbon dioxide tax would compensate for the advantageous tax conditions which the aviation sector currently benefits from.”

How much do you travel yourself as part of your job?
“More or less as most other researchers, I would think. I could travel a lot more, but I prefer not to - partly for environmental reasons, but partly for reasons of efficiency. It’s time-consuming and fairly tiring also.  Transport journeys and waiting take up a lot of time and when one comes back home a lot of work has piled up when one was away!”

Christer Gummeson

Emissions of carbon dioxide from KTH’s university-related travel, kg/per employee:

  • 2012: 1 580
  • 2013: 1 250
  • 2014: 1 060

Number of flights at KTH in 2014

  • Total: about 21 000 (10 548 return journeys)
  • Number of flights under 500 km: 4 419.
  • Number of flights under 250 km: 391.
  • Number of flights on route Stockholm-Göteborg and return: 426

    (The figures come from Via Egencia - with whom KTH has an agreement concerning travel agency services - and are estimated to cover 80 per cent of the journeys carried out at KTH)

KTH’s guidelines: “Never fail to go by rail between Stockholm and Göteborg”
According to KTH’s own guidelines travel shall, as far as possible, be replaced by non-travel alternatives such as web, video or telephone conferences. For travel where good rail connections exist, the train should be chosen in the first place. For journeys of less than 500 km, the train should always be chosen e.g. Stockholm-Göteborg. Flights of less than 500 km require special reasons, according to these guidelines.

Public bodies with the maximum total emissions from long flights:
1) Karolinska Instititet, 2) Uppsala University, 3) Lund University, 4) Swedish Defence Materiel Administration, 5) KTH. (Source: Naturvårdsverket)