By Michael Mortimer

In the 1993 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Force of Nature,” the crew of the Enterprise face the reality that their own warp drive engines are destroying the very fabric of space, creating an existential threat to both human- and alienkind. They cannot, of course, simply give up warp travel. Warp travel is fundamental to human civilization and development. So they compromise with a galactic speed limit, except in cases of emergency.  

Today we face a more tangible but very similar challenge. Global air travel is a profound contributor to carbon emissions. Currently, the aviation industry is responsible for about two percent of global emissions, but that number stands to double or triple in the coming decades. But like the 24th century’s warp travel, today’s jet airliners are integral to modern society. For better or for worse, though, it’s an impact that can easily be identified, both at the organizational/airline level and at the personal level.  

Because of the considerable carbon emissions associated with any and all air travel, it behooves air travelers—especially frequent fliers—to be cognizant of their impacts. Organizations are not immune to that expectation. 

In the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS), all of our graduate students travel abroad as a required component of their master’s degree. CLiGS’ students travel to Cuba, China, India, Morocco, Egypt, Spain, Argentina, Croatia, Iceland, and South Africa. We believe strongly that exposure to other countries, cultures, and international environmental challenges is fundamental for sustainability professionals. Strengthening the cosmopolitan competencies of our students is critical to understanding and working in our globalized world. Of course, providing these educational opportunities requires international air travel. On average, every year CLiGS’ people cumulatively travel more than one million air miles, emitting some 165 metric tons of carbon. And no, the irony of a sustainability educational program emitting this amount of carbon is not lost on me.

In some places and at some times, there can be suitable alternatives, such as rail. (Coincidentally, I penned this from a northbound Amtrak train.) But in many cases, air travel is indispensable. 

Because CLiGS cannot and should not stop taking its students abroad, we need to acknowledge the impacts of our pedagogy. Beginning this Fall semester, the Center will begin mitigating the carbon emissions from the air travel of both its students and faculty. Working with the company Terrapass, CLiGS will contribute to a portfolio that invests in renewable energy and methane recapture. Offsetting our air travel carbon emissions is a big step for our center, but still a small step in the larger academic landscape. That said, the word “leadership” is in our name, so we will do just that.

Dr. Michael Mortimer

Dr. Mortimer is the Director of the Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability. He received a Ph.D. in Forestry from the University of Montana, a law degree from the Pennsylvania State University, and Bachelor of Arts in Biology from Washington and Jefferson College. Dr. Mortimer teaches courses in Natural Resource Law and Policy and Environmental Conflict Management. His research is published in Society and Natural Resources, Journal of Forestry, Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Environmental Management, Journal of Forest Policy and Economics, and other leading natural resource journals.