A new kind of closeness - Impulses for more sustainability in the international scientific community

Dr. Nicole Aeschbach

The drastic travel and contact restrictions during the COVID 19 pandemic abruptly stopped movements and encounters of people on all spatial scales. In many areas, the establishment or expansion of virtual communication followed with immense speed. This resulted in a fascinating ambivalence of distance and closeness. In a world primarily characterized by physical presence, whereabouts play a decisive role; in digital collaboration, this spatial dimension partially dissolves. On the one hand, large distances can be easily overcome via online conference; on the other hand, virtual tools are not a complete substitute for personal contact, for example during a coffee break or when getting to know each other for the first time. From the perspective of academia - which is more or less transferable to many other sectors - the question arises whether and how the experiences from the Corona crisis can contribute to the mobility transition.

On average, a German causes all in all about 11.6 tCO2e emissions per year. A return flight Frankfurt - New York alone generates over 3 tCO2e. Air travel therefore has an immense impact on the personal footprint. Physical participation in international projects and conferences has been an integral part of the everyday life of successful researchers. However, publicly funded institutions in particular have a special responsibility to contribute to society not only with research results but also as role models.

In recent years, several universities have begun to actively address the issue of reducing air travel. ETH Zurich is one of the first universities worldwide to have developed concrete reduction targets and associated measures in its project "Stay grounded - keep connected". The participatory process in particular has attracted a great deal of attention. Conflicting goals make the venture a wicked problem: internationalisation and career opportunities seem to be irreconcilable with climate protection. The initiatives to reduce emissions from air travel have got the ball rolling, but have not yet brought about a change in the system. Virtual tools play an important role in the catalogues of measures, but the lists of concerns are long.

Now the COVID 19 pandemic has initiated a huge experiment virtually overnight. Not only smaller workshops, but also large and important conferences will experience their first virtual edition this year. One of many examples is the "Fall Meeting" of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), which takes place every year in December, usually in San Francisco. Last year, over 24,000 scientists took part. Milan Klöwer from the University of Oxford has calculated that the "AGU Fall Meeting 2019" has left a travel footprint of 69,300 tCO2e. For 2020 the AGU is planning an almost completely virtual conference. Announced are presentation and interaction formats that will whet the appetite for participation.

At the beginning of March 2020, the Mobility Platform of ETH Zurich and the TdLab Geography of Heidelberg University jointly launched a questionnaire to collect experiences with virtual formats and tools in academia. Although the initial period of the switch from presence to digital was certainly nerve-racking for many, the results testify to a great openness and many positive experiences. 75 percent of the respondents are in favour of organising and attending more virtual events, even beyond the contact and travel restrictions. The most frequently mentioned reason for this approval is time saving. In second place comes the avoidance of CO2 emissions. This sounds like a shining example of a so-called "co-benefit". We should build on this and use the tools and skills we have explored in recent weeks to question our travel decisions more critically in the future. The next step is to boldly experiment with formats that create a new closeness not only in the transmission of information but also in personal exchange. The first step has been made.

Dr. Nicole Aeschbach

Institute of Geography
Dr. Nicole Aeschbach heads the TdLab Geography (Transdisciplinarity Laboratory) at the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University. Her activities...

Add new comment