Air Travel

Make Science, Not Miles

UZH promotes forms of scientific collaboration that involve less air travel. The project "Make Science, Not Miles" – launched in 2021 – aims to make UZH members aware of the high external costs of air travel, which are particularly caused by the emission of greenhouse gases. Who is aware of the true costs of a trip can rebalance them against its expected benefits.

Reducing flight emissions by at least 53% by 2030

The Executive Board has decided that in 2022 UZH's flight-related greenhouse gas emissions may increase to a maximum of 60% of the pre-pandemic level (average of 2018/2019 as baseline) and must be reduced afterwards by at least 3% per year compared to the previous year. This is equivalent to a total reduction in actual emissions of at least 53% by 2030. Additionally, the Executive Board recommends that faculties set more ambitious reduction targets.

Background: UZH is actively and consistently committed to the global goal of sustainable development. With the Implementation Strategy 2030 for its Sustainability Policy, the university has set itself the goal of climate neutrality by 2030. Until the pandemic, air travel by employees and guests was responsible for the largest share of UZH's total greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore air travel offers the greatest potential to reduce UZH's greenhouse gas emissions.

Implementation of the sustainability policy

Share of air travel in UZH greenhouse gas emissions

During regular operations of UZH, air travel causes the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, even ahead of electricity and heat purchases, commuting, and canteen food. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, this share was around 35% (2018/2019) of UZH's total greenhouse gas emissions. This included all flights of which UZH paid at least 50% of the costs. 83-84% of these emissions come from long-haul flights, although these only account for about one-third of all flights. Every avoided long-haul flight is therefore a relevant gain for the climate.

Flugemissionen im Vergleich 2018-2020
Zoom (JPG, 282 KB)
THG emissions by category of cause (in metric tons of CO2e)

Making fewer air miles is the most important lever to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In principle, there are the following options:

  • Use virtual presence as an alternative to air travel. This applies to own travel as well as to invited speakers and examiners at UZH's expenses. The environmental impact of the IT infrastructure required for video conferencing and other forms of virtual exchange, while not negligible, is generally much lower. A video conference would have to take 8,700 hours to outweigh a flight from Zurich to New York and back in CO2 equivalents (Factsheet Business Travel (PDF, 364 KB)).
  • Reduce number of travelers. Choose which person on a team will travel to an event and report to the others.
  • Travel by bus or train. For travel in Europe, long-distance trains and buses are the options with much less environmental impact. Night trains are available for some destinations.
  • Combine multiple reasons for travel. If possible, plan the trip to serve several purposes at once, thereby replacing several trips (e.g. by combining several visits).

For unavoidable air travel, the following measures help to significantly reduce the environmental impact: 

  • Choose economy class. By not flying business class, 5-10% of flight emissions could be saved at UZH annually. A flight in business class causes – due to the larger share of the aircraft allocated to the passenger – at least twice the amount of emissions as an economy class flight.
  • Choose relatively efficient airlines. By choosing an efficient airline, up to 50% of flight emissions can be avoided in some cases. Over a distance of 6,550 km, this can save one ton of CO2 for a round trip (efficiency class C: 1,600 kg CO2, efficiency class G: 2,600 kg CO2).
  • Favor direct flights. A direct flight within Europe is preferable to a flight with a stopover, as the take-off phases are particularly emission-intensive. It is worthwhile to replace feeder flights with rail travel.
  • Offset emissions. Carbon offsetting cannot substitute, but complement the measures mentioned above. When choosing a provider for carbon offsetting, make sure that the compensation projects are of high quality. For the latter, the "Gold Standard" certificate provides guidance. Click here for a comparison of important providers of CO2 compensation (in German).

Steps towards less air travel at UZH

Until summer 2022, the faculties will develop their own reduction measures appropriate to their situation. This leaves room for solutions that match the different academic cultures and missions. Some organizational units have taken voluntary action to reduce their air travel already before the reduction target was decided. 

The Department of Geography set the goal – even before the pandemic-related restrictions – to reduce air miles by 25% up to 2025 along a linear reduction path, starting from the average of 2017-2019.

The Institute of Political Science strives to make the journey of lecturers based outside Switzerland as sustainable as possible, among other things by holding block courses. Multiple travel for a course should be avoided. In addition, emissions from all air travel are offset.

The Graduate Campus (GRC) makes the consideration of ecological aspects in travel planning part of its evaluation criteria. The required information covers the choice of travel mode, the travel program and the use of the time spent on site. In addition, sustainability in applications for GRC Grants and Short Grants is also an important topic. Thus, low-emission journeys by invited experts are given preference over air travel where possible. This prioritization also applies if the ticket price is higher and there are additional costs for overnight stays.

The Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences explicitly allows external examiners to participate remotely in doctoral examinations, according to the 2019 revised ordinance on obtaining a doctoral degree (PromVO 2019). Virtual participation is possible under the condition that the other members of the doctoral committee are on site.

Since May 2021, UZH members may declare voluntary self-commitments to reduce their flight emissions on the  Platform for voluntary self-commitments.

National and international efforts to reduce academic air travel

UZH is part of the Swiss Network for Sustainable University Business Travel, in which representatives of the largest Swiss universities collaborate to jointly reduce emissions from business travel. Besides UZH, ETHZ and EPFL, the universities of Basel, Bern, Fribourg, Geneva, Lausanne, Lucerne, Neuchâtel, St. Gallen and Svizzera Italiana, as well as two Universities of Applied Science, ZHAW and ZHdK, are involved.

Universities and researchers around the world are also committed to an academic life with fewer emissions from travel, for example in these international networks:

The Roundtable of Sustainable Academic Travel 

No Fly Climate Sci 

I won't do it under 1,000 km! 

Among others, the universities of Edinburgh and Lund are particularly active. Further universities and their efforts are shown in this interactive map created by a PhD student at ETHZ.

Further information and support

Background information and support

  • The Factsheet Business Travel (PDF, 364 KB) compares greenhouse gas emissions and net time requirements when traveling by train, car, plane and when communicating virtually.
  • The Travel Map ETH compares train and flight emissions and time requirements for selected destinations from Zurich.
  • Ecopassenger calculates energy consumption, CO2 emissions and other environmental impacts for different modes of transport (air, car and train).
  • Routerank helps to find the most environmentally friendly and fastest way to a destination.
  • The Eventmanagement Team of UZH offers ideas, examples and advice for planning virtual or hybrid events.
  • The Multimedia- and E-Learning Services Team of UZH provides support in procuring infrastructure for video conferences in offices, lecture halls and seminar rooms.

Further Reading