A "Modest Proposal" for the Climate Community

Originally posted to IE-Nets.

The first International Conference on Negative CO₂ Emissions will take place on May 24-26, 2018 in Gothenburg, Sweden. As part of a team working on a (small) project to assess the potential for negative CO₂ emissions in Ireland, I’m delighted that we have had two abstracts accepted for presentation, and I’m very much looking forward to meeting and engaging with the emerging international community of researchers working on this critically important topic. 

And yet: I’m also torn. Dublin (where I live) and Gothenburg are 1240 km apart. My return flight would represent a combined GHG emission commitment of the order of 250-500 kgCO₂e. Trivial in a global sense, but if academic “experts” on climate action appear unwilling to urgently reduce their own emissions, does that not grievously undermine any message we might have for wider society?

Now you may say I’m a dreamer... but I’m not the only one! The Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research has published a very useful working paper, Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century, and there already exists a public petition calling on academic institutions to address this issue, called Flying Less: Reducing Academia's Carbon Footprint

 Holyhead, Ireland to Gothenburg, Sweden by train and ferry. Source: Google Maps

Holyhead, Ireland to Gothenburg, Sweden by train and ferry. Source: Google Maps

Which all brings me to that “modest proposal.” I do hope the Gothenburg event is the first in a series of such conferences, but I also hope that, as an emerging research community, we might consider from the start radical ways to reduce the environmental impact of everything we hope to do. I would point, for example, at the Nearly Carbon-Neutral model that can deliver a highly effective international conferencing experience — but without the burden of large scale travel.

In the meantime: I am still very much looking forward to Gothenburg, but for myself, I’ll be choosing not to fly, but to travel by ferry and train instead. It will cost rather more and take a little longer (four extra days overall!), and of course, the carbon “saving” will be no more than symbolic. But I hope that sometimes symbols may matter more than they appear. And if you are also travelling to Gothenburg, do please look out for me there — and let me know what your own thoughts are on a life Beyond Flying!


Barry McMullin is a professor in the School of Electronic Engineering at Dublin City University in Ireland and Executive Dean of the DCU Faculty of Engineering and Computing. He received his PhD from the National University of Ireland for his thesis on evolutionary methods of developing complex artificial systems. Between 2000 and 2004 he served as president of the All Ireland Society for Higher Education (AISHE), which fosters teaching and learning in Irish Higher Education. Reach him at barry.mcmullin@dcu.ie.