Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.


Why refraining from academic flying may not be the best career move

My personal opinion of a professional dilemma

Calculations show that only 2–4 % of the global population are flying. Academics from all over the world, especially the developed countries, are among these, traveling to attend conferences and fieldwork. In 2021, academic flying by staff at my university in Sweden, Lund University, contributed to an extra 827 178 kg of CO2 emissions. In comparison, global aviation emissions are around 1 billion tons of CO2 per year. The domestic flying in Sweden in 2019, corresponded to about 3 % of the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions of domestic transport, and less than 1 % of Sweden’s total amount of emissions. The six most frequent destinations for business travel at Lund University in the year 2022 were all located in Europe, and actually, the top destination was Stockholm, the capital town of Sweden located approximately 600 km from Lund with excellent train commuting possibilities. 

Even though my doctoral project is within the discipline of music education, I am extremely concerned about the climate crisis and try to do everything I can to reduce my carbon footprint. That includes not flying. Since my first years as a doctoral student were during the Covid-19 pandemic years with almost all communication performed (for example attending conferences, seminars, etc) via online platforms, it has not been a very drastic change to continue with the online options instead of being on site.

Furthermore, the pandemic has been a game-changer when it comes to digital solutions. Even though I believe that most of the academic work can be performed online, Alexandra Ponette-González and Jarrett Byrnes, both researching global environmental change and the effects of climate change, still advise against early-career researchers to refrain from flying. Reducing academic flying to sustainable emissions levels while others continue to fly is, in their words, self-defeating in career terms. However, there is research indicating that even though many scientists are reluctant to cut down on their travel since they are concerned about their careers, there is no evident link between frequent flying and academic success and productivity. The consequences of visiting fewer conferences may thus not be as drastic as anticipated.

One of the music researchers who have called for reconsiderations regarding academic flying is Catherine Grant, a successful Australian ethnomusicologist. She argues that the issues ethnomusicologists have long been concerned about, like power imbalances, ethics, social justice, human rights, and (cultural) sustainability, are all negatively affected by climate change. Grant states that the population in the areas that are most affected by, and least responsible for causing climate change, are homes to the people ethnomusicologists traditionally have been most concerned for – underprivileged minority cultures. Ironically, by flying to these remote locations, ethnomusicologists contribute to the very problem they are trying to understand and help mitigate. 

The fifth most frequent destination for business travels at Lund University in 2022, Helsinki, is the site for an international music education research conference on the theme ‘sustainability’ in July/August 2024. On-site with no digital option available. Sure, 1090 kilometers is not a very long distance, and it would be possible to get there from my destination in the south of Sweden in a climate-friendly way, for example by train and ferry. Even flying Malmö-Helsinki-Malmö would, according to calculations, add merely 235 kg CO2 into the atmosphere. Quite a small amount, almost even negligible. However, multiplied with all the researchers from all over the world flying to this conference, keeping in mind the theme of ‘sustainability’, the total amount of carbon emissions will be huge. I am not going, since my presence would somehow legitimize academic flying. Lund University acknowledges that the University staff are flying too much and are far from achieving their sustainable goals. Perhaps it is therefore no one at my institution has questioned my decision to not go to this conference. 

Even though encouraging fellow researchers to reduce their carbon footprint drastically, Grant (2018) still considers some flying to be necessary, for example very important conferences and fieldwork. If she would deem the Helsinki conference to be of that importance to justify flying from Queensland, Australia, and back, that would lead to an extra 3980 kg of carbon emissions, we do not know. Which leads to the question of responsibility. What are the environmental responsibilities of individual researchers, the conference organizers, and the research community? Will my decision as a single doctoral student have an impact at all? Well, following Grant’s (2018) and Ponette-González and Byrnes (2011) line of argument, my decision will likely have an impact on my career. But even if my career will suffer – do my academic merits matter in relation to the environment?

 I attended the 3rd European Music School Symposium in October this year, which was a hybrid conference (Vienna/Zoom); this conference too on the theme of building sustainable futures. The above-cited Catherine Grant was the keynote speaker. Online from Australia. I am happy that the conference organizers acknowledged the potential environmental impact of the conference. Still, they were also outspokenly concerned about equality, aware of the fact that not every doctoral student or researcher in Europe would have the financial resources to participate. Thus, there are multiple reasons for offering hybrid alternatives. Equality and environmental sustainability are closely connected, and I wish for more senior researchers and event organizers to acknowledge these dimensions when planning and conducting conferences and other events. As stated by the charity organization ‘Music declares emergency’ – No music on a dead planet. Music and music education could be a valuable resource in the fight against climate change, and music education researchers should take this responsibility seriously. 

Featured Image by Leszek Stępień from Pixabay

About the Author
  • Ida Knutsson 0000-0002-6767-8137

    Ida Knutsson is a PhD candidate in music education at Malmö Academy of Music, Lund University, Sweden. She holds a BA in music (2006) and an MA in education (2008) as well as a Suzuki violin teacher certificate (level 5, 2015). Her primary area of research regards instrumental teaching methods, and her PhD project investigates the dynamics of social inclusion versus musical progression in group tuition within the publicly funded Swedish Art and Music School.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Related Posts
Back to top