Make Science, Not Miles

Illustration Projekt Flugreisen

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 re-evaluate them against the expected benefits.

Greenhouse gases emitted through flying contribute to climate change, which will affect many generations to come. The project is designed to motivate people to explore the full range of forms of exchange (virtual and physical) and means of travel to continuously reduce business travel-related emissions. This requires a cultural change which draws new opportunities for international exchange from what may currently be perceived as a restriction. This also applies to career opportunities for young researchers, which deserve special attention. 

«We need to reinvent intellectual and cultural exchange by breaking free from rigid forms. There are many forms of virtual and physical presence, many ways to engage in discourse and collaboration. We will find ways to better enable even informal exchange and incidental learning in virtual spaces. Conversely, we will realize how unproductive at least some forms of travel are; such as flying thousands of miles just to sit across from each other for a short period of time at meeting tables that create more distance than the tiles on Zoom.»

Prof. Dr. Lorenz Hilty, Sustainability Delegate

Climate neutrality target

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 (Goal II.3.1) and the goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions caused by business travel and commuting of university members as well as by internal transport (Goal II.3.2). Before the pandemic, air travel was responsible for the largest share of UZH's total greenhouse gas emissions. A reduction in air travel therefore offers the greatest potential to reduce UZH's  greenhouse gas emissions.

Implementation of the sustainability policy

Figures on greenhouse gas emissions from air travel by UZH members

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-related greenhouse gas 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 is preferable to a flight with a stopover, as the take-off phases are particularly emission-intensive. For the same reason, 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).

First steps to reduce air travel emissions at UZH

As of now, there is no comprehensive approach to reduce flight-related emissions at UZH. However, several units have set individual targets or implemented measures to reduce the emissions caused by their air travel.

The Department of Geography set the goal (in 2020) 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 who do not live in Switzerland as sustainable as possible, among other things by holding block courses. Multiple travel for a single course should be avoided. In addition, the emissions of all flights are offset at the institute by payments to compensation service providers.

The Graduate Campus (GRC) provides information on ecological travel planning as part of the evaluation criteria in order to sensibilize applicants of travel grants for sustainable mobility. The information covers the choice of travel mode, the design of the travel program and planning the time spent on site. In addition, sustainability in applications for GRC Grants and Short Grants is also an important topic. Thus, journeys of invited experts by train or other sustainable mobility solutions are given preference over air travel wherever possible. This prioritization also applies if the ticket price is higher and there are additional costs for overnight stays. 

At the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, there is the explicit possibility of a virtual participation in doctoral examinations for external examiners and other people involved, according to the 2019 revised ordinance on obtaining a doctoral degree (PromVO 2019). They can participate via video conference under the condition that the other members of the doctoral committee are on site.

Since May 2021, UZH members may commit a voluntary self-commitment to reduce their flight-related greenhouse gas emissions and other sustainability measures by declaring them on an online platform, which is increasingly being used. Platform for voluntary self-commitments

Efforts to reduce air travel in the scientific community at the national and international level

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:

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 support and information

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