Flying Environmentalists ?
I think about MY AIR MILES on a regular basis.
Growing up in London with an American father and a French mother, I started flying very young to visit both sides of my family (which I am very grateful for). My parents, outdoor enthusiasts, also treated my brothers and I to ski and sailing vacations in direction of the best snow and wind conditions.
As I went to university in the US I went home three times a year and started the pathway of a young scientist: traveling to places like Abu Dhabi and Cuba for conferences. Delving into environmental advocacy, it became clear that my life-style was controversial.
Even with all the recycling, composting, gardening, car-pooling and tree planting I do, my carbon footprint has a disastrous effect on the planet. People like myself, who know exactly the science behind carbon emissions and climate change, should set an example and keep air travel to a bare minimum.
A perfect example of our contradictory efforts is the traveling involved during large climate conferences, like the COP21 in Paris coming up in November. Scientists attend these conferences from the four corners of the world, scrambling at the last minute to make decisions that will make all stakeholders happy. Their carbon footprint? More than 50,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide according to the Guardian.
The thought of dramatically limiting my air miles right now, and in the near future, seems insurmountable. I’m a young scientist with a good educational background and opportunities will fly right past me if I don’t attend certain events. There’s that saying- ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’. For instance, if I hadn’t flown back to England last June to visit my brother I would never have known about the School of Geography and Environment at Oxford and I’d never have gotten in!
Why Hawaii? Because I’m interested in tropical ecosystems and the islands have many agroforestry farms due to their Polynesian heritage. As a Plant Scientist, the big island is paradise— it’s topography is such that there are 8 of the planet’s 13 climate zones on a single island!
Why the interest in tropical ecosystems? Because they are the most productive (fast carbon storage), the most ‘biodiverse’ yet the most endangered.
Why are tropical ecosystems the most endangered? Flora and fauna in the tropics are very sensitive to temperature change because species aren’t adapted to the seasonal variation of more temperate climates. Thus, in light of climate change, species are unable to either migrate or adapt fast enough to surmount the change. For instance, because plants are sessile, seed dispersal is one of the greatest limiting factor of their resiliency to global warming.
That’s why our lab group at Oxford is using the elevation transect of the Peruvian Andes to see how species respond to temperature change. The elevation gradient serves as a proxy for climate change predictions. As it gets hotter due climate change, scientists are looking at how fast lowland species can migrate upslope to find colder conditions. You can read more about their research here.
All in all, I justify some of my air miles with the fact that I am passionate about plants and determined to undertake research that I think will contribute the most to understanding and responding to climate change.
It just so happens that I discovered the importance of studying tropical agroforestry for it’s potential to stock large amounts of carbon and provide perennial staple foods while I was a student in the UK. I am still forging my path and I hope that my research and carbon footprint is ‘worth it’ for the future generations. I hope to find a place to live one day, close to the mountains and the ocean waves that will satisfy my needs with some sacrifices made along the way.
As I’m defending my carbon footprint, I’d also like to mention an article written by my Earth Science Oxford Professor Myles Allen “We shouldn’t fret about the carbon footprint of (Prince) William’s helicopter.” Prof. Allen is certainly not a climate sceptic, but argues that worrying about individuals’ carbon footprint is “irrelevant to the issue of climate change” because individual abstinence does not reduce overall consumption. Indeed, carbon accumulates in the atmosphere so global warming “will only cease when the net flow of fossil carbon out of the ground is virtually zero”. According to him, no one has the power to regulate a global emissions cap so the solution is to burry all the extracted carbon in the ground via regulated Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).
so invest in CCS!
Disclaimer: this does not mean that we should not care about our footprint!
What I do to offset and limit my carbon footprint:
Learn to refuse opportunities. I was invited to represent youth environmental leadership at the UN headquarters in August 2014, a month and a half before the start of my year at Oxford. While I had some leftover funding from Cornell, I decided not to go because the outcome of my presence would be minimal.
Plant trees! While CCS offers one solution, it doesn’t offer all the other ecosystem services (ES) that carbon stocked via trees does. These ES include habitat, and Non-Timber Forest Products amongst other things.
Educate people about the power of perennial edible landscapes.
Attend conferences virtually. In October, I will be speaking via Skype at an Outdoor Education conference held at Cortland University in New York.
Bike and Walk Everywhere you can
Limit Single-use plastic