The UK’s top universities have spent tens of millions of pounds on hundreds of thousands of flights over the past four years, as it turns out today – despite repeated commitments to tackle the climate crisis.
Nearly 170,000 air travel – including long-haul, continental and domestic travel – have been made by staff from just eight institutions, including Cambridge, Bristol and Newcastle universities, The Independent has learned.
Imperial College London alone operated 38,000 flights between 2016 and 2020, which corresponds to 26 every day of the year.
Aviation is one of the biggest causes of global pollution and a key factor in climate change.
Amazingly, however, the new characters only represent the tip of the iceberg.
Of the 24 Russell Group universities that The Independent asked for flight numbers, 15 – including Oxford, Manchester and Glasgow – refused or said they did not record such trips.
With flights around the world currently reduced due to the coronavirus, politicians, scientists and students have urged universities to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reset their future travel policies for the good of the planet.
“We have seen how possible it is to do as much work in a way that does not require as many air miles,” said Baroness Natalie Bennett, former Green Chair. “If we can use the last year for anything, it has to usher in a new age with less air travel, and universities have to be at the forefront of that.”
The top polluters included Newcastle University with 34,551 flights and the University of Cambridge with 22,277 flights. Southampton University recorded 23,613, University College London 21,138 and Bristol University another 13,969.
Thousands of the flights went to New York while other exotic destinations were Bangkok, Nairobi, and Beijing, as well as pretty much every European capital. Hundreds of domestic hops to cities connected by rail – including between London, Bristol, Manchester and Edinburgh – are also on the list.
Crucially, despite the Russell Group’s repeated pledges to take action on the climate crisis, the shock numbers identified by a Freedom of Information request come about.
In a joint statement released last December, the group said it was committed to finding solutions to global warming through “research, teaching and more sustainable practices”.
There was “no problem to avoid and there is no time to waste”.
This means that the new revelation has led to charges of hypocrisy.
“It’s great that we see a lot of small gestures, like giving up plastic bottles or plastic straws, but one flight cancels a lot of that fine work,” said Baroness Bennett.
Calling for greater use of conference calls, virtual meetings and train travel, she said universities should give employees more travel time so they can take the train. However, she added that the government needs to invest more to create a green transport network that is simple, cheap and convenient – and that is integrated with the rest of Europe.
“Our universities not only have to be leaders in research and teaching, they also have to lead by example,” she said. “However, when the government talks about rebuilding better after the coronavirus, it must facilitate the transition to reduced aviation by building greener and cleaner transport infrastructure.”
The institutions that did not disclose full flight numbers were Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Kings College London, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham, Oxford and Queens Uni Belfast.
Three – Sheffield, Durham and York – said they could not provide flight numbers but admitted to spending around £ 12.2m, £ 6.5m and £ 4m on air travel, respectively, during the reporting period.
The fact that such records were not routinely kept was a major oversight, according to Baroness Bennett. “If you don’t measure air traffic, you don’t know how bad your situation is,” she said. “I think it would be right not only to do this for universities, but to publish their figures annually.”
It was a call for transparency that was repeated by the students concerned.
Tom Hazell, a 19-year-old student of philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University and co-chair of Young Greens, said: “When the world is facing a climate emergency, it is clear that this sheer number of flights is unsustainable and that more needs to be done to promote the use of trains and technology. ”
Others stressed that while universities are necessarily centers of global collaboration, a cultural shift is required in their approach to aviation.
“Science is an international culture and people in the past have felt that they are doing the right thing because you exchange ideas with people from around the world and expand the reach of research,” said Dr. Steve Melia, Lecturer at the Center for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, Bristol and a member of Extinction Rebellion. “But to avert a climate catastrophe, we need a culture change that takes environmental impacts into account when making decisions about things like flights.”
A spokesman for the Russell Group collective said travel was a fundamental element of what it did.
“While our research and education activities inevitably have a carbon cost, we are fully committed to reducing flying where possible and also taking steps to reduce the emissions associated with our ongoing travel,” said she.
They did not comment on why 14 facilities did not appear to keep a record of the flights carried out.
A spokesman for Imperial College London, the largest aviator, said: “Imperial is the UK’s most international university and academic travel is essential to many global collaborations. Bringing people from different cultures, nationalities and areas together leads to different perspectives, new ideas and new approaches to solving complex problems: from coronavirus to climate change. ”