UCSF Sustainability Stories

Business Travel: Increases Pollution, Decreases Equity

Air travel by UCSF faculty and staff is a major source of carbon emissions for the University. Moreover, as we reduce CO2 emissions in most areas, emissions from business travel are on a steady rise. In 2008, air travel accounted for 8 percent of UCSF’s total carbon footprint, by 2018 it increased to nearly 15 percent. This means, 15 percent of UCSF’s total carbon footprint, which includes everything from the energy it takes to power the buildings to employee transportation, comes from air travel.

Stephen EttingerStephen Ettinger (right) and Colin Baylen, recipients of the UC President’s Bonnie Reiss Carbon Neutrality Initiative Student Fellowship, which funds projects that support the UC system’s goal to become carbon neutral by 2025, realized the problem and focused their research on finding a solution.

Using travel data from a single UCSF medical department as a case study, Ettinger and Baylen estimated that a medium-size department accumulates 700 round-trip flights a year. Assuming there was an equal number of long and short-haul trips, the 700 flights emit a total of approximately 1,050 metric tonnes (or over 2.3 million pounds) of CO2 per department. So what? That’s enough CO2 to eliminate approximately 33,500ft2 of sea ice or ¾ of an acre each year.

Interviewing staff and faculty they discovered that often times business travel is incentivized by both written and unwritten rules that govern career growth and advancement. The pair was in the middle of a successful carbon offset sales pitch to the University leadership, when the pandemic halted their efforts and grounded all flights, giving them an opportunity to reimagine their solution.

While buying CO2 offsets would counter travel emissions, the more sustainable and environmental-friendly solution is to change the culture of business travel. “There are a lot of reasons to travel that get baked into faculty advancement. That includes teaching, presenting at conferences, doing visiting lectures, and sitting on review and editorial boards. All these things have been traditionally done in-person and on-site, and often required travel across the country. We think many of these engagements can be done remotely and not to the detriment of career growth, and the past year has shown us that it is possible,” explained Ettinger.

They’ve proposed the idea of shifting the culture around travel to institution leadership including the Vice Chancellor and President of the Academic Senate, Dan Lowenstein, MD and Dave Teitel, MD. “Dr. Lowenstein and Dr. Teitel agree that for many reasons this makes a lot of sense. There’s a carbon emissions component and an equity component. People of color and women are underrepresented in academia and data suggest that some of that is because they receive funding and grant opportunities at disproportionately lower rates, which makes travel more difficult and costly…” shares Ettinger. Reducing the incentives to travel, levels the playing field for academic opportunities. It gives a fair chance to those who’re not always able to travel to advance at the same pace as those who are.

At the end of the day, Ettinger and Baylen are not out to restrict travel. Their goal is to change the outdated incentive structures that have traditionally motivated people to travel. Their plan involves clear guidance from leadership on which events and meetings must be attended in person and which can be done virtually. In addition, the final proposal will include a chapter on investing in a carbon offset system to offset the carbon accumulated by the travel that is done. The pair hopes to share the proposal plan with Lowenstein and Teitel by the end of the year.