Air travel in academia

Media Lab designs a pilot carbon-offsets program.

At MIT, as globally connected citizens with many opportunities for work- and research-related air travel, many community members contribute more to climate change than the average American.

At MIT, as globally connected citizens with many opportunities for work- and research-related air travel, many community members contribute more to climate change than the average American.

Our planet’s warming climate presents an imminent and catastrophic challenge that will have far-reaching economic, social, and political ramifications. As residents of a wealthy, developed nation, we contribute more to climate change than the average global citizen. At MIT, as globally connected citizens with many opportunities for work- and research-related air travel, many community members contribute more to climate change than the average American.

For many individuals at the Media Lab, who travel around the world to collaborate on research projects, present at conferences, and lead workshops, research-related air travel represents a huge proportion of their annual greenhouse-gas emissions. For example, a single economy-class seat on a flight from Boston, Massachusetts, to Los Angeles, California, is responsible for the same carbon emissions as 110 days of driving a car. Several labbers wanted to do more to educate the Media Lab community about the impact of our collective air travel and improve the lab’s sustainability.

While the best way to reduce our carbon footprint would be to take fewer airplane flights, this solution isn’t always possible or desirable given the research opportunities that require air travel. Instead, research assistants Juliana Cherston, Natasha Jaques, and Caroline Jaffe decided to start a pilot program through which the Media Lab will buy high-quality carbon offsets to reduce the climate impact of the lab’s collective air travel. The program’s website was designed and engineered by Craig Ferguson.

Though carbon-offset programs have been criticized in the past for giving people an excuse for irresponsible climate behavior, carbon-offset verification has improved drastically in the past decade. When it is infeasible to reduce overall air travel mileage, the purchase of high-quality, verified carbon offsets will fund projects that produce renewable energy and avoid future carbon emissions. As part of a pilot program, the lab plans to buy carbon offsets through Gold Standard, a certified offset provider that verifies that their offset projects, like distributing clean cooking stoves, investing in wind power plants, and regenerating forests, both reduce carbon emissions and also meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

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