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The climate researcher who avoids flying because of its carbon footprint was fired for not getting on a plane

Dr Gianluca Grimalda told Louise Boyle and Stuti Mishra last week that he feared losing his job over his beliefs

Thursday 12 October 2023 20:27 BST
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Dr Gianluca Grimalda pictured on his 9,300-mile overland journey to Papua New Guinea. The senior climate researcher at the Kiel Institute in Germany, lost his job this week over his refusal to fly
Dr Gianluca Grimalda pictured on his 9,300-mile overland journey to Papua New Guinea. The senior climate researcher at the Kiel Institute in Germany, lost his job this week over his refusal to fly (Gianluca Grimalda)

A climate researcher has been sacked after he refused to fly home from a fieldwork project in Papa New Guinea because he avoids flights in order to minimise his carbon footprint.

Dr Gianluca Grimalda was notified on Wednesday by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany that his research contract had been terminated.

The academic has refused to take flights since 2010 unless there was no other option, a stance that his employer previously supported.

Earlier this year, Dr Grimalda embarked on a 35-day, 9,300-mile (15,000km) overland journey including through Iran, India and Thailand to reach Papua New Guinea in the southwest Pacific.

“Since I do not teach and meetings can be held online, there is nothing that requires my presence in Kiel”, Dr Grimalda wrote, in a statement to The Independent. “Burning 4.9 tons of CO2 — about how much the global citizen of the world emits in one year — for the absurd request to work on site is inacceptable in the current climate emergency. I am going to file a lawsuit for unlawful dismissal against this decision.”

The Independent has contacted the Kiel Institute for comment but they have not yet responded.

Last week the academic, who is a member of protest group Scientist Rebellion, told The Independent how he feared losing his job over his beliefs. “Maybe I will not find another research position,” he said. “Doing research is the thing I love the most in my life.”

Dr Grimalda started working at the Kiel Institute in 2013 and for the past six months, has been in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea studying the social impacts of climate change and market integration among 30 communities.

The academic acknowledged that he had been delayed in his return to Germany which he attributed to his group being held hostage and additional security threats in Papua New Guinea. Last month, his bosses sent an official warning and demanded he return to his desk by 2 October, the scientist said.

His salary was stopped in September, he added, a source of major stress.

“I pay for the healthcare of my mum in Italy. One-third of my salary goes to the payment of the healthcare of my mum,” he said during a WhatsApp call from Bougainville Island on 4 October.

He added: “I perceive immoral blackmail in what they were telling me. They wanted me to renege on my moral principles, on my commitment, in order to admit my failure in not having complied with the agreement that I had with them.”

The academic documented his slow travel journey from Germany to Papua New Guinea in an epic Twitter thread (Gianluca Grimalda)

Dr Grimalda is travelling on a cargo ship for the first leg of his journey home, a voyage which required special permission from the National Maritime authority of Papua New Guinea, before continuing via bus, train and passenger ferries. He has calculated that his slow-travel route, which will take about 50 days, will reduce his emissions more than tenfold from 5,300kg of greenhouse gasses from flying to 420kg.

“My stance is to not take a plane unless there is no alternative,” he said. He explained that on the outbound journey, he was forced to take two flights - one because China’s borders were still closed in February due to Covid, and another to reach Papua New Guinea from Singapore.

The scientist said that the Kiel Institute has been supportive of his slow travel in the past, and that it has not impacted his work.

“I analyse my data, write articles, read articles. There is nothing that I can do in Germany in my office that I cannot do while traveling,” he said. “Occasionally I don’t have internet while traveling but I just wait a little time and then I can connect to the internet.”

He acknowledged that he was supposed to have returned to Kiel by 10 September but said that he had informed his head of department about the security threats he had faced.

Gianluca Grimalda with residents in Papua New Guinea. He says his promise to locals about cutting his carbon footprint has given him resolve (Gianluca Grimalda)

“We were held hostage for some hours under machete threat. All of my belongings were confiscated,” he said.

“I now learned that I should have also informed the personnel office, I was not aware of that. Apparently for the Kiel Institute that was a major infringement of my contractual obligations. But I really had no idea, I thought that informing my immediate supervisor was enough.”

Dr Grimalda said that he was given an informal warning and threatened with dismissal by Kiel in 2022 over civil disobedience actions he took part in with Scientist Rebellion, an activist organization.

In an email to The Independent last week, Guido Warlimont, head of communications at the Kiel Institute, wrote: “We remain committed to our policy of not publicly discussing or commenting on personal legal matters. This is also for the protection of our employees.

“In general, the Institute encourages and supports its staff to travel climate-friendly. We are committed to do without air travel in Germany and in other EU countries as far as we can. We pay to Atmosfair to offset emissions through climate protection projects.”

Mr Warlimont added that Dr Grimalda planned his trip to Papua with Kiel’s support, and that the institute had supported a “slow travel” trip that he made previously.

Flying is one of the most emissions-intensive pursuits an individual can do. A person’s carbon footprint increases by ticket class — and rockets with private jet travel.

Domestic and international aviation is responsible for about 10 per cent of transport sector emissions. Roughly 1 per cent of the global population is responsible for more than half of these, the UN says.

Dr Gianluca Grimalda crossing a stream with a local resident to reach a village in Papua New Guinea (Gianluca Grimalda)

Flying is expected to boom in the coming decades as more countries grow their middle classes. Carbon emissions from the airline industry grew by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2012, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. “If left unchecked, they could consume quarter of the available carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5C,” the research group said.

Dr Grimalda said that his resolve had been strengthened by what he witnessed in Papua New Guinea, one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the climate crisis.

The country is experiencing sea-level rise and more frequent storm surge, forcing coastal communities to relocate. In mountain villages, drought is causing food shortages.

“I’m going to stick to this promise I made to all these people who are so exposed to climate change without having any responsibility,” he told The Independent.

“Sea level rise is not because of their emissions. People from the US are the ones with the highest carbon footprint in the world, but also Europeans. I don’t want to fail these people one more time, even if this means losing my job.”

Dr Grimalda said that, by his calculations, even his slow travel plans are equivalent to the average Papuan’s emissions in one year.

“My estimation is the average person from Bougainville emits 400 kg carbon dioxide in one year,” he said. “To give you a sense of proportion, the average person in the world emits four tons of carbon dioxide in one year [and] the average US citizen emits 20 tonnes.”

The Italian academic’s story has resonated through the realms of academia and beyond. His saga, which he has shared on X, formerly Twitter, has received hundreds of comments and mounting media attention. Fellow academics have written to the Kiel Institute in protest on his behalf.

“We need more people like [Gianluca Grimalda],” wrote PhD student Tuulia Reponen. “You are my hero.”

Some 70 per cent of carbon emissions come from just 100 companies worldwide, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mr Grimalda acknowledges that he would be a “fool” to think his individual actions could alter the course of the climate crisis.

“But I thought that this was the right occasion to really sound the alarm bell, to tell as many people as possible that we really need to change completely our lifestyle,” he said.

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