Rambles around computer science

Diverting trains of thought, wasting precious time

Fri, 23 Aug 2019

Research travel, climate change, and why we must educate our institutions

Like many academics, I travel quite a lot. I'd rather do so in a way that is environmentally sustainable. Most conferences I travel to are sponsored by ACM SIGPLAN, which in recent years has developed a ad-hoc committee on climate issues.

It's great that SIGPLAN has taken this issue seriously. I do agree that carbon offsetting, SIGPLAN's current recommended action, can be worth doing. The following is my greatly simplified summary of the committee's argument for recommending this action. (For the actual argument, which is far more carefully argued, see the preliminary report.)

  1. Research benefits from high-quality communication, which entails travel, e.g. to conferences. [This is clearly true, for now at least.]
  2. Travel “very often involves flying”. [My quibble in this post: let's not assume this is a variable over which we have no control. In practice, many of us have some choice at least some of the time.]
  3. Flying is dependent on burning fossil fuels, therefore on emitting carbon.
  4. Therefore, as a short-term action it is feasible only to offset carbon emissions, not to reduce them.

To me this comes across as a North American perspective, and overlooks the transport situation in Europe. Within Europe it is largely possible to avoid flying. Here are some conference trips I've made by train (and sometimes ferry) in the past few years. In each case I was starting in south-east England, either from Cambridge or Canterbury. For clarity: many of these were not SIGPLAN-sponsored events, but I don't think that detracts from my point.

Hopefully the above shows that a lot of travel within Europe can be done without flying. So what stops people? My best guesses are the following.

The first step to changing this is to recognise that we live in a “flying first” culture. The power of unfamiliarity and inertia, both individual and institutional, is considerable.

The second step is to challenge it. This means asking for our institutions' support, and questioning policies that appear unsupportive. My previous institution's travel guidance sanctions Eurostar trains only for journeys “to France”, apparently not aware that they also run direct to Brussels. No doubt minds would be blown if I were to describe how by changing trains, you can reach even more countries. I wrote to the page's maintainers in March 2018, but despite a friendly-seeming response, there has been no change as of August 2019. Perhaps I'm optimistic, but I believe that institutions will learn we keep telling them. Flying in Europe mostly isn't necessary. The last time I chose to fly within Europe was in September 2012. Since then, I've done it exactly five further times (one way), Aside from the case of industrial action noted above, these have been where the choice was effectively made by some institution or other: if I'd taken the train I likely wouldn't have been reimbursed.

The third step is to accept taking a short-term hit in time and money. Even if our time overheads are somewhat increased in real terms, we should see sustainable choices as an intrinsic good, and choose them to the extent we personally can (which will vary; it's easier if you have your own travel budget). Not only do academics have a responsibility to society, but also we are unusual in the extent to which we can not only “afford” additional travel time, but perhaps even benefit—given extra time spent on trains or ferries, we might even get more work done! I admit that the above record of relatively little flying has only been achievable because I've sometimes ponied up some extra cash myself—but this shouldn't be necessary.

A fourth step is more political, but is necessary to make that hit “short term”: demand progress! Solidarity around sustainable transport is sorely needed. Even in Europe, loss of political favour has been causing the offering to go backwards. Cross-border train and ferry services are overall becoming more sparse—especially night trains, as I noted above. Sometimes, faster daytime trains are a suitable replacement, but often this is not the case. “Voting with your feet” is the most basic and important form of this, but other things, like supporting campaign groups or writing to your representatives, can make a difference. It's the sort of thing most of us could do more of—myself definitely included. The reasons for the cutbacks I mentioned are complex, but are in large part regulatory and therefore political. (Some useful articles about the DB cutbacks are here and here. Despite this, there are reasons to be cheerful: see here and here, where there is a very nice map.)

Coming back to SIGPLAN: I think there is room to develop practices that encourage SIGPLAN members to use more sustainable travel options where they exist. A positive framing is necessary, which will take some careful thought. I believe a financial incentive is also necessary—but straight-up differentiated registration fees might be hard to administer, and perhaps unpopular.

As one possible positive framing, perhaps SIGPLAN could develop a pool of funds, analogous to PAC, but used to pay top-up contributions for those who choose to travel sustainably and cannot otherwise fund the difference. One way this might work is that after a conference, those who submit evidence that their travel was sustainable would a earn a small rebate on their registration fee. This would be offered partly as a token redeemable against future registrations (benefitting the institution paying for the travel) and partly as a deposit into the pooled contribution pot I mentioned. For the latter, the individual or institution receives no money but gets some kind of “points certificate” (to help gamify things). I note the mooted ACM-directed carbon pricing recently proposed in a SIGPLAN blog post; which would also generate some pooled funds. I'm not yet sure whether it should be the same pool; perhaps not.

In October I will be travelling to SPLASH in Athens. From the UK this is one of the more challenging European destinations for surface travel. But it is certainly feasible and I'll certainly be doing it! The core of the journey is an overnight train from Paris to Milan, a train to Bari or perhaps Brindisi, and a ferry (again overnight) from there to Patras. Let me know if you're interested in joining me or learning more.

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