Should Business Trips of Researchers Be Compensated for Their Climate Impact?

There is no doubt that business traveling contributes significantly to Co2 emissions. One of the largest groups of business travelers are researchers. In the following we will examine their contribution to carbon emissions in more detail and give an estimate how those emissions might be compensated.

According to Eurostat there are more than 2 million researchers in Europe. The vast majority of them are actively traveling to conferences, meetings etc, some of them very actively, making 10 or more trips a year. The most significant climate impact is to be expected by air travel. Staying on the conservative side, we estimate that each researcher is traveling by plane at least once a year for propfessional purposes. Thus, we have a minimum of 2 million business trips per year. That is a substantial number which, in turn, generates a huge amount of carbon emissions.

Currently, there is a discussion among several European countries to charge all airline travelers in order to compensate for the climate impact of flying. And indeed, there is widespread agreement in Europe as far as this topic is concerned.

However, it is a bit bizarre that, to my knowledge, most of the countries are not willing to set a good example by compensating the business trips of their employees with carbon charges. Since the vast majority of researchers are working in the public sector, there should be no problem to automatically compensate for their climate impact.

How much CO2 is emitted by those travels? Let us take the distance Berlin – Lisbon as a reference. Of course, many research trips will go over much longer distances (e.g. to US, Japan, etc.) , but some will also be shorter. During a round trip Berlin – Lisbon each passenger emits about half a ton of CO2. The corresponding carbon compensation cost would amount to some EUR 10.0 (USD 15.0). Once again we stay on the conservative side with our estimate.

Thus for some 2 million business trips per year the respective compensation cost would be of the order of EUR 20 million (USD 30  million). This is a very tiny amount compared to the total financial expenditure for research which in 2010 was more then EUR 245 billion. Thus carbon compensation of business flights of researchers would correspond to a mere 0.008 % of research expenditure.

We may conclude that compensating carbon emissions by research staff would come at a relatively low cost while at the same time setting a good example in order to promote climate policies.