Amid COVID-19 pandemic, PCCN university travel team analyzes alternatives to travel

Thursday, May 14, 2020 - 3:48pm

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Courtesy of Hibah Mirza

As most University of Michigan operations and travel remain disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, findings from one of the analysis teams for the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality suggests there are opportunities to reduce University travel in order to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The University Travel Internal Analysis Team is one of eight teams working for the commission to provide recommendations for reducing emissions in specific areas. The team investigated the amount of emissions produced by University travel as well as the knowledge, attitudes and opinions from those who travel on behalf of the University.

Rackham student Nate Hua, a member of the team, said one of the team’s goals was to consider the reasons for travel and explore viable alternatives. He emphasized the team was already exploring videoconferencing as an alternative before the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March, when most University operations went remote.

“We recognize that travel can’t be eliminated … but we were thinking of exploring these alternatives,” Hua said. “How can different technologies be leveraged to enhance convenience. So being able to have a meeting virtually as opposed to having to go somewhere in person, what are the tradeoffs (and) what are the benefits of doing that?”

Hua worked on the carbon accounting process for the team to approximate the amount of emissions produced through travel. The team estimated University travel was responsible for about 45,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions in 2018 - out of 6 billion metric tons nationwide -, but Hua noted this number is a lower bound estimate based on what the team could document and the actual amount of travel-related emissions is likely higher. 

John Williams, faculty co-lead of the travel analysis team and professor of molecular and integrative physiology, said the team primarily collected its data before the COVID-19 outbreak occurred and developed its report based on this research. According to Williams, airplane travel accounts for 90 percent of University travel-related emissions. He explained the recommendations the team is proposing to the commission, emphasizing the importance of informing University personnel about alternative travel options and environmental effects.

“We are hoping the University can mount (an) educational campaign to get University members, when considering travel, to first evaluate whether the travel is worthwhile, second, substitute ground for air or hold a virtual meeting rather than face-to-face, and third, mitigate air travel by means of a travel offset fee,” Williams said.

Rackham student Jiangzhou Fu, a member of the team, designed survey questionnaires and analyzed the results for the team. Fu described his analysis, saying those who reported knowing about the difference in greenhouse gas emissions of air and ground travel more often said videoconferencing was an easy alternative. These respondents were also more supportive of an offset travel fee, which would essentially allow travelers to pay a fee that would go towards greenhouse gas reduction efforts in an attempt to balance out the emissions from flying.  

“We recommend there could be more actions and campaigns to educate people,” Fu said. “That would be helpful to reduce the carbon footprint.”

Williams added the onset of the pandemic could impact how the commission approaches recommendations, arguing the implementation of videoconferencing this semester reinforced its feasibility as an alternative to in-person meetings.

“That change is gonna probably have the most impact on whether (the commission) will recommend that some of our recommendations be implemented,” Williams said, “because there has been more experience with videoconferencing and everyone is getting used to the idea of traveling less.” 

In an email to The Daily, University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen said the commission intends to look at additional opportunities for reducing emissions that have arisen or become clear during the pandemic.

“While the commission will soon fully consider the recommendations proposed by various internal analysis teams, some teams have noted that the ongoing global pandemic has revealed new or previously understated opportunities toward greater sustainability,” Broekhuizen said. “The University Travel internal analysis team, in particular, has studied the feasibility of videoconferencing—which is far more prevalent today than when the team's analysis began. The commission looks forward to reviewing all recommendations, and keeping an eye toward opportunities presented by this new normal.”

In an interview with WEMU on Thursday, University President Mark Schlissel said the University is considering how the current implementation of videoconferencing could be an efficient alternative option to reduce financial and environmental costs.

“Certainly one of the things that we’re doing is we’re keeping an eye out for the things we do now in the setting of an emergency that we can incorporate productively into our future operations at the University,” Schlissel said. “And certainly one of the things would be the ease of conducting meetings — the time savings, the savings in travel, actually the benefits to the environment — of conducting some of our meetings remotely as compared to convening people in person.”  

Daily Staff Reporter Arjun Thakkar can be reached at arjunt@umich.edu.