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There has to be a balance between research and climate considerations in SDU’s new travel rules

At SDU, it will continue to be possible for researchers and staff to travel to meetings and conferences.

By: Denise Abrahamsen and Flemming Bridal Rasmussen

At the end of 2022, SDU announced new travel rules for employees, which have been approved by SDU’s Executive Board. SDU employees are encouraged to limit their work-related travel and particularly air travel. This stems from the desire to reduce the University’s total emission of greenhouse gases.

However, work-related trips are an important basis for the University’s collaborations and research with universities around the world, and the balance between consideration for the climate and the University’s primary tasks can be difficult.

According to the University Act, universities must collaborate with the surrounding society and contribute to the development of international collaborations. At the same time, international collaborations on science, technology and innovation between the global North and South are cited in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 17 as being an essential condition for more sustainable development. At SDU, the University’s latest sustainability report shows that researchers at SDU collaborate widely with researchers in the Global South.

Read more: SDU’s Sustainability Report

Prior to the Executive Board’s approval of the new travel policy, the matter was discussed with SDU’s Climate Panel, University Council and the Central Liaison Committee.

‘First of all, it is important that at the University we become very aware of our climate footprint. This is particularly relevant in relation to the University’s travel activity. One of the considerations behind the travel rules is that we must still be able to carry out the University’s primary tasks in research and education,’ says University Director Thomas Buchvald Vind and continues:

‘If our staff and students can’t travel, it will be difficult to carry out research and education. This means that our travel rules can’t be too restrictive.

We’ve tried to strike a reasonable balance that sends a signal about the importance of taking the climate into account without prohibiting travel altogether.’

Interventions for greener travel rules

In recent years, many universities have revised their travel rules to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. At Ghent University in Belgium (GU), it was decided in 2020 that the university should reduce its CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990. This was decided in light of the severity of the climate crisis, but particularly after calculations showed that 30% of the university’s total CO2 emissions came from air transport.

A large part of SDU’s total CO2 emissions also come from transport and work-related trips. According to SDU’s climate accounts, in 2018 4,426 tonnes of CO2 equivalents were emitted because of transport, which include air and rail travel, travel in SDU’s company vehicles and employees’ own vehicles.

Read more: New travel rules set to cut SDU’s CO2 footprint

However, the new travel rules at SDU are not as strict as those at GU. For GU employees, it is generally not possible to book flights if the destination can be reached within eight hours by train. In addition, the university charges a climate fee of £50 per tonne of CO2 equivalents emitted by any flights taken. The fee is then used to make rail and bus travel cheaper for employees.

Regarding further considerations for GU’s travel rules, Irene Govaert, an environmental advisor at the university, says:

‘We would like to further link the compensation price with the ETS price, and we would also like to expand to student air travel in the future.’

Thus, at GU there are plans for the travel rules to include students in the future.

Read more: Ghent University’s travel policy

Unlike GU, SDU’s new travel rules do not include any general rules on how long or short a journey must be before flights are permitted. As previously, all travel must be authorised. However, for domestic journeys and flights under 500 km, not only the journey but also the means of transport are to be approved. Nevertheless, this does not mean that flights are prohibited.

Instead, SDU staff are simply encouraged to limit their work-related trips and particularly the number of flights taken. Therefore, when using the SDU travel agency the traveller is now informed about the estimated greenhouse gas emissions of a flight. By making the traveller aware of the climate impact of the journey, we hope that the traveller will reconsider the choice of transport or whether the journey is necessary at all. 

Therefore, SDU will also support its staff in choosing climate-friendly modes of transport and holding virtual meetings and conferences to the extent that this is possible.

In addition, it has been agreed that the University’s diesel and petrol vehicles will be phased out and replaced with climate-friendly vehicles, including electric cars.

Although SDU’s new travel rules are not nearly as restrictive as GU’s, the importance of having travel rules is no less weighty. Therefore, SDU has also put forward a number of principles to help employees choose their method of transport prior to their journey if virtual alternatives are not possible.

Time will tell if the new travel rules and principles will have an impact. Therefore, the effectiveness of the travel rules will also be continuously evaluated.

What is ETS?

ETS is EU Emissions Trading Scheme. The system is based on the principle of emission ceilings and trading. In practice, this means that the system sets a price for CO2 permits, which companies buy in proportion to their own greenhouse gas emissions. The less a company pollute, the less the company pay. The ETS system ensures that the number of permits decreases over time, which will lead to a decrease in emissions. Source: The European Commission.

Focus rapport

Are you curious about the amount of CO2-emissions SDU emits per year? Data regarding to this is continously updated in relation to both national- and international travels across the universities' units. Data can be found here.

Focus rapport - Air travel

Did you know...

Numbers from 2022 has just been updated? Data shows that SDU has had a comparatively low use of air travel in 2022. The numbers are, in fact, almost the same as in 2020 during lock down because of COVID-19! This is positive for SDU, and we hope it will continue in 2023.

Last Updated 06.03.2023