A cleaner science

Science helps us to analyse climate change and to act to limit its effects. But it also contributes to climate change, for example through the many trips scientists make to conferences or to visit colleagues. The institutions of the ETH Domain are committed to reduce their carbon footprint. Here's how.
Business travel contributes a large share to the CO2 emissions of ETH Zurich and EPFL. (©dsleeter)

Switzerland wants to achieve carbon neutrality, i.e., to emit as much CO2 as is naturally or artificially absorbed. And it has committed itself to doing so by 2050, which will require reducing our emissions by half compared to 2006 levels. The Federal Administration wants to set an example and achieve this by 2030. The ETH Domain is part of it, and must therefore do its utmost to drastically reduce its carbon footprint. For this reason, the institutions of the ETH Domain have made sustainability a central part of their strategic thinking.

The Office for Sustainability at ETH Zurich has been in existence since 2008 and reports directly to the President. "For me, this is a sign that there is a real willingness to move forward on this issue," says Christine Bratrich, who is in charge. For part of its carbon footprint, the ETH Zurich is well on its way to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030, particularly in terms of heating, cooling and purchased electricity. A major issue is daily way to work and business trips, which alone account for more than half of the greenhouse gas emissions recorded at ETH Zurich in 2018.

«ETH Zurich was one of the first universities to estimate its travel footprint.»      Christine Bratrich, Director of ETH Zurich Sustainability

Same situation at EPFL: the greatest progress has been made on campus, says Gisou van der Goot, vice-president for responsible transformation. The university is preparing to do entirely without fuel oil and gas for heating buildings, is encouraging soft mobility for commuting, is reducing the amount of meat served in cafeterias to reduce the campus food footprint, and is aiming for "digital sobriety" by acting on the growing environmental impact of IT. Again, business travel makes up the largest chunk with 44% of emissions (or a third, if the climate footprint of food is included).

Travel is one of the key issues, but it also represents an opportunity to significantly reduce the institutions' emissions. “ETH Zurich was one of the first universities to estimate its travel footprint," says Christine Bratrich. “We encourage the individual departments to plan their own greenhouse gas reduction targets. Our latest survey indicates that more than 90% of faculty are aware of our efforts in this area." These commitments are voluntary – there is no consequence for not meeting targets, she says.

Leading by example

Some of the scientists interviewed admit that they have not given much thought to the carbon footprint issue. Others are very aware of it. "I'm allergic to grand declarations," says Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, a professor at EPFL's Materials Institute. "We talk about sustainability issues informally in my team. The culture in a lab is not defined through speeches, but through leading by example." She discusses every trip with her team members and has set simple rules: favour the train whenever possible and do not fly for trips of less than 500 kilometers.

She has, of course, greatly reduced her business travels since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. And she doesn't plan to return to her former pace: "I felt pressure to do a lot of long-distance travel, because that's what is expected of scientists on a certain level: to be invited to big conferences, to travel often to visit colleagues, to establish international collaborations... You have to choose how you invest the available time. To me, spending long hours on airplanes does not make you a better scientist."

“We have to take an honest look in the mirror,” she says.“Is travel really necessary to advance our research project, or does it simply flatter our ego?” Nevertheless, travel remains essential for research, she stresses: "Science needs creativity, and creativity is nourished by informal, impromptu and unexpected exchanges. The pandemic has shown us that virtual exchanges are possible, but I have observed that online meetings are in fact very focused: when you have the chance to talk with a colleague, you make the most of every minute. It's efficient, but it doesn't leave any room for spontaneity. If we continue like this, I think the creativity of science and serendipity will suffer."

The role of technology

Christine Bratrich of ETH Zurich points out an interesting solution: hybrid conferences that split an event into several hubs, for example a first one in the United States and a second one in Europe, the two being linked by video conference. The advantage is to significantly reduce CO2 emissions by limiting intercontinental flights while allowing scientists to meet personally on different continents and share their knowledge via video conference.

Technology has an important role to play, confirms Gisou van der Goot of EPFL. "We have to be ready to invest in video conferencing solutions that work, suitable rooms, easy-to-use devices. A simple webcam is not enough in all cases." Both Federal Institutes of Technology have also tested robotic camera and screen systems that allow online participants to join small face-to-face conversation groups remotely, with the aim of recreating the informal dynamics that take place during a cocktail party, for example.

«There is a very high expectation for scientists to travel to many international conferences.»      Lena Gubler, researcher at the WSL

"There is a lot of talk about travel, but there needs to be a discussion about how academic careers are evaluated," says Lena Gubler, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL. There is a very high expectation for scientists to travel to many international conferences. But the number of events one attends should not have a decisive impact on the success of a scientific career. My research, for example, analyses how peatland rehabilitation could contribute to reducing CO2 emissions in Switzerland. It has been applied and to maximize its impact I work a lot with local actors. The academic system should leave room for less traditional careers."

Work of conviction

Gisou van der Goot from EPFL is very much aware of this problem. To reduce the importance of professional travel in the perception of what constitutes a good career as a scientist, the vice-president proposes to extend to the whole EPFL what she had put in place as dean of the School of Life Sciences: to authorize the mention of a maximum of three conferences per year in the files submitted for promotion, in order to set a clear signal that it is not the quantity that counts, but the quality.

In order to change attitudes, Gisou van der Goot relies on direct diplomacy: "I talk individually with people on campus who travel a lot, to hear their point of view and, if possible, convince them to reduce their travel. Some of them are grateful: they tell me that before, they didn't dare refuse certain invitations for fear of being perceived as rude, arrogant or lazy, but now they can say they have to do it to respect the institution's policy!"

For her, the management of an institution can play a role through good infrastructure, easy-to-use monitoring tools or by using the services of a travel agency that takes environmental aspects into account when booking, such as giving preference to direct flights over cheaper ones. "But whether or not to travel is ultimately a personal decision," she stresses.

One tricky point remains, though: shouldn't the growth in university staff be limited to reduce their impact? “Absolutely not," says Anna Fontcuberta i Morral. “If it wants to achieve its carbon objectives, Switzerland will need the specialists we train.”