The Carbon Footprint of Environmental Research: A Personal Dilemma

During the past two years, I conducted various trips in order to collect enough material to feed my current research project, titled “The Food Question”—three of which included international flights. This research, on the food security and food sovereignty of rural communities in Colombia, my home country, has been designed and undertaken as an environmental history. As such, it can make a case for peasants and their territories, lands, waters, and their environment in general. I am a professional as an academic historian, but I am also an environmental activist who cares deeply about those suffering the consequences of greed, war, and climate injustice.

I was planning at least three more global trips to reinforce my primary sources and promote this research in conferences and other academic events, when a school girl from Sweden took a symbolic journey on a yacht from Plymouth to New York to speak in the United Nations on behalf of those I want to speak for too. And I confess, I felt ashamed. When Greta said, in front of the world. “if you fail us, we will never forgive you,” I no longer felt among those young activists. This time, I was among the adults she was addressing, and spoke directly to my heart. I said to myself, “wait, what am I doing? How much Green House Gas (GHG) emissions am I producing to speak for dying agroecosystems? Does it make sense to contribute to the damage in order to talk about that damage?” This was when I realised that generating this environmental impact in the name of peasants and their environment was nonsensical.

I discussed it with my supervisors. We reckoned that I had already two visits under my belt to the archives at various Colombian sites and at the FAO in Rome as well as a huge five-month field trip to conduct oral history research and collect Environmental Living Memories. In that sense, no more trips were absolutely necessary. That meant saying goodbye to great conferences and opportunities coming on the other side of the Atlantic for Latin-American researchers and environmental historians. Honestly, it hurts not to pursue those panels—it’s very hard to let go, and it could also negatively impact my academic career. However, I just cannot keep on adding emissions to this project, and somehow I know that carbon offset compensations are not enough.

My reflections went forward. I was curious and unquiet. Could it be possible to find a way in which the same project compensates its Carbon Footprint (CF), and also benefits the peasant communities that are participating? Starting off, I needed to assess the damage… and calculate the CF of my research.    

Calculating the carbon footprint of “The Food Question”

To simplify this analysis, I decided to separate my own equivalent carbon footprint from the project. Therefore, I did not include my food, accommodation, or energy use (including by hardware usage) in the calculations. This meant that I only considered the events that required displacement. I also realised that the equivalent carbon footprint of trips using coaches or trains is marginal in comparison with those requiring flights.

This is why I focused on three main trips: my visit to the FAO Archives in Rome, an exploratory trip to Colombia, and the actual fieldwork. I made a list of the main emitter actions: flights and different type of terrestrial transportation. I used the online Carbon Footprint tool to estimate the tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). In order to get the best approximation, only two sets of parameters are required: 1) the airport names in IATA format for flights; and 2) the miles or kilometres covered in the actual routes (not the distance between cities) taken per type of transport: coach, motorbike, car, or train. That is how I found that my project’s CF is 6,24 tCO2e.

This means that the total GHG emissions generated by the travel I undertook for “The Food Question” could cause the same amount of warming as 6,24 tonnes of carbon dioxide. 95% of this amount corresponds to flights, almost 6 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. According to the World Bank, this 6,2 tCO2 is what someone in East Asia and the Pacific, or in the Middle East and North Africa, on average uses to live for a whole year! It is also ten times what a person in Senegal uses to live for a year, or twice as much as my own sister and brother—Latin Americans—use in a year for living.[1] Moreover, from the Obscura Digital artists, I learned that the CF of my project may look like six and a quarter cubes (representing a tonne of carbon each).[2]

Media Cube Installation for COP15 Climate Conference;
Copenhagen, 2009. 8m x 8m x 8m (December 7, 2009).

Six and a quarter cubes, the size of 12 shipping containers each! That is a lot to digest. Each return flight to Colombia is equivalent to more than two and a half of these cubes.

Emissions of the equivalent of that pictured CO2 cube are produced by us, every time we take our research to a conference on the other side of the Atlantic—so we can present our paper for ten or twenty minutes in front of our peers and do our networking. To me, this just does not feel right anymore. We need to find a better way to communicate our research and connect with our colleagues and stakeholders. As environmental historians and environmental researchers, we need to find better ways to be coherent and loyal to our own research subjects! 

Carbon Offset: “el que peca y reza empata

Perhaps one of the first questions that comes to mind once we calculate the CF of our research is: how many trees do I need to plant to offset a 6,24 tCO2e emission? We know that this number depends on the type of tree, but just to give an idea: “A tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old”.[3] This could be interpreted to mean that to actually compensate for each ton of equivalent carbon dioxide, I would need to plant a tree and guarantee its survival for at least forty-one years. In other words, the real cost of the total project externalities would mean to ensure the life of at least seven trees for around as much as I have left to live (assuming I will live a long healthy life).

Now, consider the amount of energy required to plant and maintain these trees. This could actually involve more GHG emitter actions, which is why paying a voluntary carbon fee to the airline to make us feel better is not enough. It’s not easy to find what they do with this money—they may simply pay a third-party to plant a certain number of trees, without further care, or for commercial forest maintenance.

The carbon market is failing, compensation is simply not working.[4] In Colombia our elders have an idiom that goes “el que peca y reza empata,” meaning “he who sins and prays, gets even.” It basically makes fun of the idea that it’s okay to do something wrong because somehow you can make up for it and get away with it. There is no way we can get away with this, this is damage we might not ever be able to repair. Yes, our house is on fire. But the last thing we need is fire fighters burning our gardens, too.  

So, could carbon offsetting be a good option for environmental researchers, or any other researcher, to compensate their CF? The best we can do, really, is not to produce any more emissions. However, in the case of “The Food Question,” the damage has been done. And all I can do is try to find a way to pay this 6,24 tCO2e debt I owe my planet. There are some charities in developing countries such as Colombia that can put the money we would like to use as carbon offset to better use. For example, at a global level we have Trees for the Future, an organization which supports African farmers working on regenerative agriculture, and in Colombia there’s BanCO2, a platform that allows you to sponsor a peasant family directly.

In the case of “The Food Question,” I still need to find a better strategy to make the same project earn the money to compensate its CF. Furthermore, I would like to involve the participant peasant organisations and their landscape in this compensation scheme, whatever shape it takes.  

Conclusion: No flying is better than compensating

Whatever the compensation strategy I manage to design for the project, this CF measurement exercise for “The Food Question” has taught me some lessons. I would like to share these with you for when you consider future research:

  1. Avoid flights at all cost, reduce them to the minimum, and if possible, to zero.
  2. Let us press the organisers of academic events to accept virtual participations under special tariffs to incentivise this type of inclusion (I know that some have already done this, but many others have not). Let us consider how much of the face-to-face networking is really necessary for your contribution to science or in building new knowledge.
  3. If flights are absolutely necessary, make sure to include proper, reasonable, realistic strategies to compensate for the CF, and include them into your budgets. Make sure that your sponsors and stakeholders are aware of the importance of taking the externalities of your research in consideration. Let us pack light and avoid domestic flights within the region of study, and instead travel like the locals do.
  4. Let us adventure more on collaborative projects. If our research includes communities or people, let us use participatory methods to co-author our investigation with local academics and local participants.
  5. Let us support digital humanities projects and digitisation of archives. Let us demand those online resources from libraries, archives, and museums.

Finally, I would love to know your thoughts and gather further ideas to improve the CF of our environmental history research. Share them with us, @DIANA_VAL and @envhistnow!

[1] Erv Evans, “Tree Facts,” North Carolina State University (accessed October 6, 2019).

[2] Rebecca Pearse and Steffen Böhm, “Ten Reasons Why Carbon Markets Will Not Bring about Radical Emissions Reduction,” Carbon Management 5 (July 4, 2014): 325-337.

[3] World Bank, “CO2 Emissions (Metric Tons per Capita)” (accessed October 6, 2019).

[4] dpr-barcelona, “CO2 Cube | A Tonne of Change,” Arkinet (February 22, 2010).