As social distancing continues to hold strong, and students, staff and faculty are adjusting to learning and working virtually from home environments, university travel remains stalled.

But one U-M analysis group is viewing this new normal — though unanticipated and inconvenient — as another opportunity to reduce U-M’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“Travel is almost like an academic status symbol for some,” said John Williams, professor emeritus of molecular and integrative physiology, and of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine. “Part of our role is to institute the culture where people ask themselves whether travel is necessary and whether there are any other ways that are more friendly to the environment that can carry out the same function.”

Williams is co-faculty lead for an internal analysis team examining university travel. The team is one of eight supporting the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality, each exploring distinct but interconnected topics crucial to U-M’s climate action push.

“Air travel is the biggest part of our travel-related carbon footprint. It’s also the biggest contributor to travel mileage and accounts for the most trips,” said Ming Xu, co-faculty lead of the team and associate professor of environment and sustainability in the School for Environment and Sustainability, and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

From an initial carbon accounting phase, the team estimates that U-M travel accounted for approximately 45,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in emissions in 2018. Importantly, this number is a lower-bound estimate, as the team has faced challenges in compiling data across departments and units, and encompassing the various ways in which the U-M community books, quantifies and reimburses travel.

By comparison, the Ann Arbor campus emitted 645,000 tons of CO2 equivalent from on-campus sources and purchased electricity during the 2019 fiscal year.

“Calculating emissions is relatively easy. The biggest challenge is gathering data,” Xu said.

“If we want to get an accurate representation of our footprint, if we’re going through this process to be carbon neutral, we want to make sure that we are able to track all of the emissions that we are actually emitting and to the best of our ability,” adds Nate Hua, a second-year master’s student at SEAS and a team member.

Hua, who is studying sustainable systems and energy, was drawn to the analysis team after an extended backpacking trip abroad. The experience prompted him to think about the motives and environmental impacts behind various modes of travel.

“Something that’s been really interesting is changing the way we think about university travel — why people are traveling, what are the substitutes? The (COVID-19) situation that we’re in now has put that under a microscope,” he said.

Going forward, Hua highlighted the importance of centralizing data through a universitywide platform that easily aggregates travel information and gives U-M travelers information on the carbon footprint of their respective trips. 

The team is also developing a series of recommendations that encourage U-M personnel to be more mindful of environmental costs when considering travel for university business, and if practical, to explore more sustainable options.

A recent survey conducted by the analysis team revealed that most respondents were willing to use ground transportation over air travel for distances up to 300 miles — enough to reach functions in Chicago, Toronto or Cleveland.

Of course, U-M students, staff and faculty travel to destinations around the world, and respondents were less amenable to longer trips via ground transportation. Still, Williams noted the potential for U-M to acquire a larger rental fleet with higher-mileage vehicles so ground transportation options are more visible and readily available for regional travel.

The team also is exploring virtual meetings — made ever-visible by the ongoing pandemic — as an alternative to some travel.

“Replacing travel to conferences with a videoconferencing option could have some potential, because most of the exchanging of ideas at academic conferences can be done really easily with video conferencing,” said William Chown, a team member and fourth-year undergraduate studying data science.

Chown joined the team with an interest in the intersection between data and sustainability. “Most people who used videoconferencing in the past said (in the recent survey) that it would be a good thing to use more often,” he said.

Granted, in-person meetings and conferences remain vital for many, including those who are presenting research, those who are aiming to share insights or network between sessions, and those who are seeking to establish their names in their respective fields.

So while virtual options are not meant to replace in-person conferences altogether, Chown estimates that videoconferencing could ultimately decrease total university travel by up to 10 percent.

Finally, the analysis team is assessing the viability of a carbon-offset program for university travel. Williams said airlines and other universities have explored offsets, but not in a way that covers the full environmental cost of a given trip.

“We’re developing some other alternatives but we’re also giving you a way to help improve the environment and prevent damage from flying,” he says.

The university travel team’s work will be highlighted again in the commission’s second interim report, due later this spring. Other students assisting the team include Cathy Lyu, Monica Yen, Jiangzhou Fu, and Hyo Sub Choi; all from the Rackham Graduate School.

The commission expects to deliver its final recommendations in late 2020. Other internal analysis teams are evaluating biosequestration, building standards, campus culture and communication, commuting, energy consumption policies, external collaboration and food.

More than 50 students are adding their expertise to the analysis teams. Subgroups are also examining other topics, such as carbon accounting, vehicle fleet electrification and social justice considerations.

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