Britain’s top universities have spent tens of millions of pounds on hundreds of thousands of flights over the last four years, it can be revealed today – despite repeated pledges to tackle the climate crisis.
Almost 170,000 plane journeys – including long-haul, continental and domestic trips – were taken by staff at just eight institutions including Cambridge, Bristol and Newcastle universities, The Independent has learned.
Imperial College London alone racked up 38,000 flights in the period between 2016 and 2020, the equivalent of 26 every single day of the year.
Aviation is one of the single biggest causes of global pollution and a key factor in climate change.
Yet, astonishingly, the new figures represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Of the 24 Russell Group universities which The Independent asked to provide details of flight numbers, 15 – including Oxford, Manchester and Glasgow – refused or said they did not record such travel.
Now, with flights across the world currently reduced because of coronavirus, politicians, academics and students have urged universities to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reset their future travel policies for the sake of the planet.
“We have seen just how possible it is to do so much work in ways that do not require so many air miles,” said Baroness Natalie Bennett, the former leader of the Green Party. “If we can use the last year for anything, it must be to usher in a new age of less aviation use, and universities must be at the forefront of that.”
Among the biggest polluters were Newcastle University which accrued 34,551 flights and the University of Cambridge with 22,277. Southampton University racked up 23,613, University College London some 21,138, and Bristol University another 13,969.
Thousands of the flights went to New York, while other exotic destinations included 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 among the list.
Crucially, the shock figures – discovered through a Freedom of Information request – come despite the Russell Group repeatedly pledging to lead action against the climate crisis.
In a joint statement released last December, the group said it was committing to finding solutions to global warming through “research, teaching and more sustainable practices”.
There was, it said, "no avoiding this problem and there is no time to waste”.
It means the new revelation has led to accusations of hypocrisy.
“It’s great we are seeing lots of small gestures like giving up on plastic bottles or plastic straws but one flight cancels out an awful lot of that good work,” said Baroness Bennett.
She urged greater use of conferencing calls, virtual meetings and train travel, and said universities should give staff more journey time to allow them to go by railway. But she added the government needed to invest more to create a green transport networks that was easy, cheap and convenient – and integrated with the rest of Europe .
“Our universities have to be among those leading the way on this, not just in research and education, but in actually leading by example,” she said. “But when the government talks about building back better after coronavirus, it must facilitate the move toward reduced aviation by building a greener, cleaner transport infrastructure.”
Those institutions which failed to 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 spending some £12.2 million, £6.5 million and £4m respectively on air travel in the period.
The fact such records were not routinely kept was, said Baroness Bennett, a major oversight. “Unless you are measuring air travel, you don’t know how bad your situation is,” she said. “I think it would be right, not only for universities to be doing this, but publishing their figures annually.”
It was a call for transparency echoed by concerned students.
Tom Hazell, a 19-year-old philosophy, politics and economics student at Oxford Universality and co-chair of the Young Greens, said: “When the world is facing a climate emergency it is clear that this sheer number of flights is not sustainable and that more needs to be done in encouraging the use of trains and technology.”
Others highlighted that, while universities were necessarily centres of global collaboration, a cultural change was needed in its approach to aviation.
“Academia is an international culture and people have historically felt they are doing the right thing in doing that because you are exchanging ideas with people from all over the world and expanding the reach of research,” said Dr Steve Melia, a senior lecturer with the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, in Bristol, and a member of Extinction Rebellion. “But if we are to avert climate catastrophe, we do need a culture change where the environmental impact is considered when making decisions on things such as flights.”
A spokesperson for the Russell Group collective said travel was a fundamental element of what it did.
“While our research and education activities inevitably incur a carbon cost, we are fully committed to reducing flying where this is possible and are also taking steps to lower the emissions associated with our ongoing travel,” they said.
They did not comment on why 14 institutions did not appear to be keeping records of flights taken.
A spokesperson for Imperial College London, the biggest flier, said: “Imperial is the UK’s most international university and academic travel is essential to many global collaborations. Getting people from different cultures, nationalities and fields together results in diverse perspectives, new ideas, and fresh approaches to solving complex problems: from coronavirus to climate change.”
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