Air travel in academia

Media Lab designs a pilot carbon-offsets program.

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.

During the six-month pilot program, the project leaders are asking members of the Media Lab community to log their lab-related air miles through a simple web interface. At the end of each month they will tally the air miles traveled by the community, calculate the carbon emissions associated with those flights, and purchase offsets through Gold Standard to offset the impact of those flights. It is hoped that the program will spark a discussion about climate behavior while contributing to a global model of sustainability.

While putting together the pilot program, the organizing team members ran into a few surprising data and design issues. First, they learned that gathering data — and knowing which data to collect — was trickier than expected. What exactly counts as “lab-related” travel, and is there some centralized system that tracks the lab’s air mileage? It turns out that no such system exists. While MIT maintains careful financial accounting, there hasn’t been a reason to specifically track mileage before, and the ability to do so is not built into the Institute’s accounting systems.

The team also wrestled with interesting questions around user participation. While they wanted to encourage as many people as possible to participate in order to collect the most accurate travel data, they also didn’t want to incentivize people to travel more than they do already. And, they didn’t want people to vacate a sense of responsibility by knowing their travel was being offset. In the process of putting together this pilot, the team learned of other groups at MIT and at other universities who are developing carbon-offset programs. In other cases, offset programs are top-down: Offsets are automatically purchased through finance or logistics channels. These programs don’t have to deal with user-participation challenges and likely have more accurate data totals, but they also miss the opportunity to engage the community in a substantive conversation around air travel emissions.

After thinking carefully about goals for the project, the team decided that soliciting travel data from the community would do the most to raise awareness about the issue — and it was also a cheap and easy way to kick off a pilot. After launching the pilot several weeks ago, the team has received a few dozen messages communicating enthusiasm, asking questions, and raising concerns. They are planning to send monthly update emails to the Media Lab community, and host several discussion groups at the end of the pilot to evaluate the program and figure out what to do next. Through this pilot, the team hopes to learn about what makes an effective carbon-offsets program and pass this knowledge on to groups at MIT and other schools who are trying to implement university-wide offset programs.

Read more at (and log your air miles if you’re at the Media Lab). When the pilot is complete, the team will publish a followup to share its findings.

A version of this article was previously published by the MIT Media Lab.

Story originally published August 7, 2019 by the MIT Media Lab for MIT News.