Academic eco-footprints are too large (and even folks who study biodiversity are guilty of this)

Just noticed an article in our local newspaper today that highlighted the irony of sustainability researchers inadvertently having a larger than average eco-footprint. This makes logical sense though, since folks doing research tend to need to publish their findings and this tends always to be a work intensive venture , which also requires the need to present data (at meetings, conferences, etc). They may have labs, so their workspace footprint is larger than most, and such space needs the usual amenities that require the use of energy (heating, air conditioning, lighting, etc).

A Montreal professor, who is sheepish that his biodiversity research generated four times the carbon dioxide emissions that an average Canadian does annually, says academia should shrink its swollen carbon footprint.

The ivory tower pays only token attention to its hefty environmental impact, said Herve Philippe, a biochemist at the University of Montreal, who wants science scholars to ease up on their addiction to international conferences and ideally, slow down the research frenzy.

“The effort is negligible,” said Philippe, who produced 44 tonnes of carbon dioxide completing his doctorate by running his computers full tilt and blasting the air-conditioning in his laboratory.

Philippe said he never dreamed that his efforts to advance the knowledge of biodiversity would have a negative impact on biodiversity.

(by Janice Tibbetts, Canwest News Service – link not sure if this is accessible without a subscription)


This particular article was on researchers who focused on biodiversity, but truth be told, the people I’ve met in the sustainability field are very conscious of their “footprint.” For instance, I know that when I visit our Institute for Resource, Environmental and Sustainability (UBC IRES), it’s bad form to use the elevator when you can use the steps. As well, I remember one time when I met Bill Rees (the researcher who gave us the concept of the ecological footprint), he commended us because our wireless mikes used bullclips to secure the microphone to his shirt – it was, I suppose, an example of extending the life and utility of an object.

Anyway, I’m kind of curious – do you think doing things such as purposely avoiding the elevator to save energy is an act with good intentions, or do you think it’s kind of overkill?

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David (@ng_dave) is Faculty at the Michael Smith Labs. His writing has appeared in places such as McSweeney's, The Walrus, and boingboing.net. He plans on using Terry as another place to highlight the mostly science-y links he appreciates. In fact, if you liked this one, you might also like his main site generally - this can be found at popperfont.net.

3 Responses to “Academic eco-footprints are too large (and even folks who study biodiversity are guilty of this)”

  1. Dave Semeniuk

    This reminds me of a recent post on Inhabitat, and the subsequent commentary. Basically, is all the R&D involved in projects like “Harvesting human energy from revolving doors” worth the pennies of energy you might get out of it in a given day? I don’t know. Like your question, it pits pragmatism against idealism – for me, pragmatism usually wins.

    However, if, as Bill Rees seems to have put, it’s about fostering creativity and innovation, then I’m all for it!

  2. Kristian Dubrawski

    It also reminds me of Al Gore’s house…..20x more electricity than the average home! and that’s in coal-a-burnin’ tennessee!!!!!

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