The big picture
Climate change is already impacting people around the globe, and this will only get worse without urgent action.
Our University, like many other tertiary institutions in Australasia and beyond, is committed to tackling climate change and has set the target of being net carbon zero by 2030. This means reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by more than half the 2019 baseline and then offsetting hard-to-abate emissions through projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Air travel forms a large proportion of many universities' carbon footprints. In 2019, our business air travel was responsible for emissions of almost 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2-e). This was the single biggest contributor to our greenhouse gas emissions and one quarter of our total of 49,000 tCO2-e.
This page discusses our Air Travel Project and provides guidance and resources that can help individuals and teams to avoid unnecessary air travel and thrive in the lower emissions future we are working to create.
Air Travel Project
The University began this project in 2019 with the aims of halving business air travel emissions and offsetting the remaining emissions.
The COVID‑19 pandemic and associated travel restrictions meant our business air travel emissions dropped by 86 per cent from 2019 to 2020 and remained at a similar level in 2021.
With travel restrictions easing in 2022, the challenge is not bouncing back to the high level of emissions pre-pandemic. The University's Senior Leadership Team and University Council have approved emissions targets across all aspects of our operations. For business air travel, this target is 5,500 tCO2-e. This allows for an increase from 2020–21 levels, recognising air travel can be essential in some circumstances, but still keeps our total below half of 2019 levels.
The project's most recent round of engagement began in April 2022, focused on this new target and how it can be achieved.
You can read more about the project and the questions that arose during this engagement in this FAQ document:
Feedback from staff and findings from other institutions suggests three broad reasons to travel, which might overlap and be of greater or lesser importance in different settings:
- Field work – accessing sites, resources, archives, equipment, valued communities and/or collaborators to progress your work
- Career progress – travelling in order to present/promote your work to others, establish, expand, or maintain networks, gain funding and/or access professional development.
- Strategic relevance to department or the University – travelling in order to recruit staff or students, attract funding, maintain relationships with key stakeholder groups, or represent your department/the University at events.
Unlike for some institutions in the Northern Hemisphere, our geographic location means that flying can often be the only realistic mode of transport to access particular opportunities.
In order to minimise the environmental impact of air travel, we must be discerning in how we use this limited and valuable resource. This includes considering equity (for example, travelling can be more important at the early stage of a career to establish networks) and strategic impact (the benefits that accrue to the department or University in addition to the individual).
Ways to minimise air travel emissions
Everyone has a role to play in keeping air travel emissions down: travellers, travel bookers, travel approvers and others involved in budget setting and monitoring. This starts with understanding the impact of air travel on climate change and ways to reduce this.
The following guidance is high level and is intended to complement the University-wide Travel and Travel Related Costs Policy and Travel Planning Procedure. This acknowledges the different contexts across our University and that an overly prescriptive approach can lead to unintended consequences.
To minimise greenhouse gas emissions, please consider:
- Choosing online meeting or conference attendance when it is offered, and challenging organisers when it is not
- Role modelling through your own meetings and events by encouraging and supporting online attendance and engagement
- Combining multiple activities – which might have involved several return journeys in the past – into a single trip (“trip chaining” or “trip stacking”)
- Considering other options, such as bringing one expert to New Zealand rather than taking several New Zealanders to visit that expert's country
- Engaging with colleagues and professional societies to ensure their policies, practices, and behaviours encourage a low carbon, climate resilient future – for example, challenging accepted continuing professional development practices that might drive low-value air travel at the expense of other development opportunities
- When you do travel overseas, is there anything you can do that will help your colleagues or department back in New Zealand? This can be as simple as making a point of speaking to one of your colleagues' current or potential collaborators, or mentioning their work during the Q&A.
Teams and managers are encouraged to tailor their approach to allocating and approving travel, in particular how to optimise the available travel budget for equity and strategic impact, to their specific circumstances.
The Sustainability Office is working on improving greenhouse gas reporting that teams and managers can receive to support this work. We are currently supporting a few different approaches with a small number of teams and will use this work to inform further guidance, tools and reporting.
Links to research, other guidance and tools can be found at the bottom of this page.
Offsetting our remaining air travel emissions
Many of you would like the University to offset emissions from your air travel, and this is an important step in achieving net zero emissions. But offsetting needs to be approached with care. As the Climate Change Commission says, there is not enough land available as a nation to plant our way out of our current levels of emissions. But if we can keep our air travel emissions well below pre-2020 levels, offsetting will let us neutralise our remaining emissions, while the aviation industry works to decarbonise air travel (keeping our flying to a minimum also sends a strong signal to airlines that they must change).
Our University is currently negotiating a native reforestation project that will help offset our emissions while providing opportunities for research and teaching. The native trees will not only absorb carbon, but they will also increase biodiversity and water quality. More details will be announced when this project has been finalised.
What about air travel by students?
The University captures flights by students in our greenhouse gas inventory in two categories:
- Business air travel – if a student's travel is funded by the University and booked through our approved travel agents
- Student air travel – flights by students to get to and from their campus of study for the academic year.
Student flying outside of these two scenarios (for example flying home to Auckland for the mid-semester break) is outside the scope of the University's emissions, but all flying creates emissions and damages the environment.
The Sustainability Office and the Otago University Students Association are working together on ways to get better data on student flying and ways to reduce gross and net emissions. In the meantime, some of the guidance and links on this page may be relevant to students who wish to minimise their travel emissions.
Below are links to research, guidance and tools to help you consider and plan your business travel.
This is a network of academics formed as a collective voice to coordinate and advise on academic flying policies and practices across New Zealand tertiary institutions. The consortium's website includes links to a range of related research and work by member universities.
Otago's representatives on the NZUATC are James Higham and Sherry Tseng from Tourism, who have published extensively on the topic, most recently:
- Higham, J., Hopkins, D., Orchiston, C. (2022) Academic Aeromobility in the Global Periphery.
- Tseng, S.H.Y., Higham, J., Lee, C. (2022) Academic Air Travel Cultures: A Framework for Reducing Academic Flying.
A European initiative with a range of resources in English, including possible measures and policies for universities to reduce emissions from business air travel.
A comprehensive and regularly updated Google Doc jam-packed with links to useful resources. In particular, sections 3: Virtual & Alternative Conferencing in light of COVID‑19, 5: Decision-Making Aids, Argumentation Guides and 13: Practical Guides for Low-Carbon Conferencing.
Hosted by Tufts University (US), this initiative has had almost 2,000 academics sign the travel petition, and includes a range of resources to support sticking to your pledge.
Should I attend the Conference?
A decision making tool and Q&A resource about attempting to reduce air travel in higher education from The Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education (Scotland). There is also a related Q&A resource:
Climate Change and Air Travel Handbook
Prepared by University of British Columbia for its departments (we are looking to prepare something similar for Otago).
Includes a travel strategy, code of conduct and decision tree that your team might consider adapting to suit your context.
A Padlet of resources produced for and during an international online workshop facilitated by the Tyndall Centre in March 2022 – scroll down for a wealth of resource links.
A collection of first-person accounts from scientists and researchers about flying less or not at all.
Developed by Agnes Kreil at ETH Zürich.
Originated at the University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany, this invites you to consider your own behaviour and develop a Climate CV that, among other things, sets out your flights, reasons for each and emissions. Would Papatūānuku call you back for an interview?
The Queensland Government requires State universities to publish data on all flights taken by staff.
A six-episode series for those of you who prefer to listen.
Toitū's Travel Calculator is the best free NZ-based option. Overseas tools can be risky as they rely on different emissions factors/assumptions or assume you can always take the train instead. The University of Manchester's Carbon Savings Tool can be fun to play around with, especially if you're planning to travel within Europe.
If you would like specific support or tools to help minimise air travel emissions equitably, please drop us a note: