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Why One Professor Stopped Flying to Help the Planet

Parke Wilde wants people to help curb climate change by taking fewer airplane trips

A flight from Boston to Mexico City might take you eight hours, including a layover. Parke Wilde took five days to make the same journey by land, and he’s fine with that.

This summer, Wilde made the 3,000-mile trip entirely by train and bus to show that eschewing air travel, even when more time consuming, is worth it for the carbon savings. Airplanes, he said, are outsized contributors to climate change, and in his estimation, taking a few extra days to get to his conference in Mexico was an environmental bargain. “I’m aware that most people would view it as difficult, bordering on foolhardy,” he said. “But I absolutely would do it again.”

Wilde, an agricultural economist and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, has flown a lot in his professional life—for research, conferences, speaking engagements, and collaborations with colleagues. Plus he has taken plenty of flights for vacations. But about nine years ago, Wilde, a member of the Tufts Sustainability Council, realized that those air miles were not sitting well with his concerns about global warming.

Compared to trains, buses, and even cars with two or more people, planes emit the most carbon dioxide per person per mile. Jets also put out soot, nitrous oxides, and water vapor from contrails at high altitudes that contribute to the greenhouse effect.

a comparison chart of greenhouse gas emissions

Source: ourworldindata.org/travel-carbon-footprint

So Wilde started thinking about what university communities could do to cut down on flights. To see if what he was asking was even feasible, he made a personal commitment in 2014 to spend a year without flying; as it turned out, he hasn’t flown since. Now he’s on a mission to educate others about how it can be done.

He found a like-minded colleague in Joseph Nevins, a professor of geography at Vassar College, and together they launched a project in 2015 called Flying Less. It aims to convince academic communities to rethink how often plane trips are necessary for the good work they do.

Wilde found that he could still attend many conferences in D.C. and the Northeast, and even places like Ohio and Atlanta, by train. When he does make a long trip, as he did to Mexico City, he’ll package multiple work stops into the one excursion. He brings a laptop and uses the extended travel time to work on those tasks he would do in his office—often with fewer distractions.

He emphasizes that sometimes, flying is the right choice. “I think of trips my colleagues take for important global diplomacy, or to address food security crises, or many other critical goals that I would not want them to miss,” he said. But most academics will admit that there are less useful conferences that they can skip.

For conferences that are valuable, Wilde will sometimes step aside if one of his graduate students can attend instead. “It frees up room in the carbon budget for our junior colleagues who are still building their careers” as well as parents of young children who may not have the time for an extended train trip, Wilde said.

As for the importance of networking with national and international colleagues, the pandemic highlighted the many ways that people can connect without meeting in person. There is Zoom, of course, and conferences that are entirely virtual.

“But you can also have what I think of as Zoom plus,” Wilde said, “which is online communication that takes extra steps to give it a little more heart and interpersonal connection.”

Earlier this year, Wilde used a Tufts Green Fund grant to pilot a hybrid format for a nutrition symposium, where attendees who gathered at designated sites in London and Boston could interact online through large screens. It has the appropriately earthy-crunchy acronym of MULCH, for Multi-Site Low-Carbon Conference Hosting. Wilde has yet to fully duplicate online the casual interactions to be found at the typical post-keynote wine and cheese event, but he is working on it.

“Parke is engaged in a productive exploration of a core sustainability dilemma: How do academic communities continue to engage in meaningful collaboration, while reducing their contribution to a significant source of greenhouse gas emission?” said Dano Weisbord, Tufts’ chief sustainability officer and executive director of campus planning. “We need this kind of experimentation to help us meet our climate aspirations as an institution and as a planet.”

Wilde’s goal is not to flight-shame anyone—he’s more interested in getting institutions to set goals and measure progress. I want my project to be seen as motivated by a strategic vision of collective change rather than a guilty fixation on personal carbon footprint,” he said.

But if you’re a professor or anyone who wants to make a change, Wilde says to start by making a list of ways you could fly less.

“You're going to see some options that you really don't like. Skip ’em. Focus on the other ones that you find more suitable,” he said. “For some people, it’s going to be just traveling less. For others, it’s going to be really enjoying your travel, but combining it into longer trips. For some people, it’s going to be replacing a long-distance plane with a long-distance train. And for those people, I’ve got practical tips.”

Those include being patient with our national passenger railroad company. “Amtrak is a semi-dysfunctional organization, and I say that with all the love of one of their best customers,” Wilde said.

He’s eager to show people that being grounded doesn’t mean going without. He documents his flightless travel on his YouTube program “Lifestyles of the NOT Jet Set,” where he delves into the culture, history, and recreation than can be found close to home or on a major train route.

As an economist, Wilde realizes that cheap airfare makes convincing people to take trains an uphill battle. “I think the formula for fixing that includes making the green transportation options easier and cheaper and better, but also making flying either more expensive or more difficult,” he said, adding, “That last part makes people uncomfortable to hear.”

Then there is the question of how much a drop in air travel would realistically affect climate change. Aviation accounts for only about 2.4% of global CO2 emissions and 3.5% of climate warming, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. But consider that only 5 to 10% of people in the world fly at least one per year. For people who fly a few times per year, “it's probably a large part of our individual impact,” Wilde said. And the trend is toward more people having the means to fly: Commercial aircraft emissions could triple by 2050, given the projected growth of passenger air travel and freight.

If people in privileged communities change their flying behavior, Wilde said, it could be noticed around the world, especially when the United States is negotiating with India, China, and other nations about their climate commitments. “There is a lot of distrust of Americans and Europeans because we’ve spent such a large part of the carbon budget,” Wilde said. “But how would that distrust change if America and Europe were really taking climate action?”

Taking five days to get to Mexico City may seem quixotic, and Wilde is the first to say that people can’t be expected to do something like that other than as an experiment. But he’s game to repeat it.

“So it costs me dozens of hours, but not hundreds,” Wilde said. “If somebody said, ‘I’m going to charge you several dozen hours of your time, but we’re going to solve climate change,’ wouldn’t you take that deal?”

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