NZ scientists’ carbon footprint dilemma

How do scientists reconcile their understanding of climate change with a carbon footprint that is larger than average? The University of Auckland's John Hosking discusses a very real dilemma in NZ's science community.

As you might expect from a faculty made up of scientists, of people who understand how the natural world works and how easily we might damage it, the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Science had a strong presence at Friday’s Climate Strike protest in Aotea Square.

Some of our scientists who marched gave personal reasons for taking part on the day: we accept our obligation to explain the science of climate change and to investigate ways in which climate change might be averted or mitigated.

But research scientists are also very aware of the irony at the heart of their role: We as a group grasp the science of climate change but we are also a group of individuals whose collective carbon footprint is significantly higher than average.

The reason? Amongst others, it’s travel.

Scientists, particularly New Zealand scientists, need to attend a whole raft of international events to contribute to and keep up to date with developments in their field, to collaborate with an overseas-based research group or to collect a prestigious award from one of the world’s science institutes.

To quote Al Gore, the “inconvenient truth” is that the business of doing science is not particularly climate-friendly. With our addiction to travel, and I admit to being one of the worst offenders, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning particularly of our labs), and other carbon-producing activities, I am certain our carbon footprint is highly unsustainable.

So, what do we do about that? Ignoring it is hypocritical at the least. Greta Thunberg at the United Nations said: “You say you hear us and that you understand the urgency. But no matter how sad and angry I am, I do not want to believe that. Because if you really understood the situation and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And that I refuse to believe.”

Do we run the risk of being evil? I think we do.

We can do our best to make the changes so that when coming generations ask us whether we continued with ‘business as usual’ or whether we had the courage of our convictions, we can answer, truthfully, that we made some hard decisions and changed things we had previously taken for granted.

So we need to take a good hard look at the business of science, ask how we can change it to be more sustainable, and act on those answers. I don’t underestimate the challenge, it will be substantial. But the other option is to do nothing and that is not an option either.

So what are some concrete things we can do?

We have role models such as Professor Shaun Hendy, from the Department of Physics, and Professor Quentin Atkinson and Professor Niki Harre, both from School of Psychology, who have adopted various approaches to ‘travel diets’ to address our travel addiction (not flying, virtual attendance at conferences and meetings, and so on). Shaun has a book on his experiences coming out imminently. I am sure there will be much for us to learn from it.

We can examine our lab and office practices to address the HVAC issues and ask ourselves – do we leave equipment on that needn’t be on; do we print things that don’t need printing? We can look at our purchasing practices and whether there are more sustainable options for doing our science.

We can look at mitigations. Many of our scientists do already – for example, getting involved in department- or faculty-led tree planting initiatives on places such as Motutapu – providing a carbon sink and providing double benefit by helping bring natural biodiversity back to the areas planted. We have a substantial unplanted reserve at Leigh – should we be planting that (and add a predator barrier to allow native bird regeneration)? Should we be wearing the cost of using this and other approaches to carbon trading?

And there are other types of mitigation we can look at, such as the work by Professor Andrew Jeffs and research fellow Dr Jen Hillman, both from the Institute of Marine Science, on shellfish restoration (carbon sequestration by mussels and oysters is substantial and reduces sea acidification). Or the work of Professor Kendall Clements and Professor Wendy Nelson, both from the School of Biological Sciences, on cultivation of kelp (kelp is amazingly prolific).

Then there is work in soil enrichment – adding carbon back into the soil is a highly efficient sequestration method – and Green Science initiatives, such as our Green Chemistry programme, must be supported in order to make current industrial processes more carbon-friendly.

In short, we are good at doing science. As scientists, let’s use evidence-based approaches to minimise our own carbon footprint, think about how we do our work and how we can make it more sustainable. And I’d encourage those of you in other businesses to ask what inconvenient truths you have and how you might address them.

I think we can do it. We can do our best to make the changes so that when coming generations ask us whether we continued with ‘business as usual’ or whether we had the courage of our convictions, we can answer, truthfully, that we made some hard decisions and changed things we had previously taken for granted to ensure that those generations will have a future.

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