Climate change and academic air travel practices at Aalto University: a case study

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School of Arts, Design and Architecture | Master's thesis
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Master's Programme in Creative Sustainability
Climate change is a complex problem that undoubtedly threatens humanity. The increase in GHG emissions due to fossil fuel burning is the leading cause of this phenomenon. Aviation is one of the sectors contributing to this problem, accounting for 5% of the total global warming impact. Universities, academics, and scientists work to find solutions to complex issues such as climate change as part of their core activities. However, they also travel regularly as part of the knowledge-making process, generating a significant adverse environmental impact. This thesis used Aalto University as a case study to analyze this paradox, exploring how climate change might influence academic air travel practices. Aalto University communicates an essential commitment to sustainability as part of its education, research, and operations processes. However, GHG emissions from air travel make up a large proportion of the university's emissions, a problem that does not yet have a mitigation plan. The thesis used a mixed-methods approach to explore this topic, including archive research, content analysis, case study survey, and descriptive statistics. The process included an analysis of academic air travel patterns in 2018 and 2019. It also covered a content analysis of institutional messages around academic mobility from sustainability and internationalization perspectives. Finally, it involved a survey to discover opinions, practices, and attitudes regarding climate change, academic air travel practices, and mitigation options. The study revealed a discrepancy between the air travel emissions officially reported by the university compared with the figures obtained as part of the thesis calculations, especially for 2018. The data showed that air mobility emissions are responsible for 40% of the institutional carbon footprint. Additionally, the study revealed that a small percentage of the population is responsible for most institutional air travel emissions. Also, official messages indicated a disconnection between sustainability and internationalization goals concerning academic mobility practices. Although the university community reported several factors that can influence their academic air mobility attitudes and practices, there is a significant willingness to reduce flights or mitigate their impacts. Therefore, the study evidenced that there are indeed a series of complex individual and institutional factors that can influence either the promotion of academic air travel or the transformation towards a more sustainable model of collaboration and mobility.
Jalas, Mikko
Thesis advisor
Jalas, Mikko
academic air travel, climate change, climate action, sustainability, internationalization, academic mobility
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