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What if applied research projects required a carbon budget, alongside a financial one?




December 21, 2018


In our capitalist world, financial dimensions are often at least implicit in our decisions.  We are accustomed to designing our projects within an allocated budget, ensuring that we are able to maximise value for money by ensuring optimal effectiveness and efficiency of resources.

Increasingly applied research projects are run by consortia, often with partners scattered around the world. Our project teams and broader research networks are global.  Whilst we may work remotely the majority of the time, making use of communication mechanisms such as email, Skype and online meeting application, this way of working does necessitate travel, whether for project meetings or conferences.

For those of us working on climate change, the irony (and perhaps hypocrisy) of contributing to greenhouse gas emissions whilst we meet to reduce them (or reduce their negative effects) is certainly not lost. When making decisions on whether or not to travel, I certainly conduct an internal cost-benefit analysis considering not only financial cost, but also carbon cost (where cost, in both cases, reflects a considered cost-benefit analysis on advantages and disadvantages).

When given the (funded) opportunity to participate in a panel at the European Conference on Climate Adaptation 2019, that will take place in Lisbon, it did not take me long to decline.  Whilst I would like to participate, I cannot justify the carbon emissions of travel from South Africa to Portugal for one session. This is in contrast to Adaptation Futures 2018 which was within my country, and at which I participated in multiple sessions and benefited from project side meetings that we scheduled to capitalise on many people being in one place at one time.  Similarly, four members of the UMFULA team recently held a writeshop in South Africa. Two of us are based here and one was already doing fieldwork in the region, which meant that we were at least minimising additional carbon costs.

It is one thing to implicitly take carbon emissions into account when planning travel, but those considerations are often trumped if a financial limitation comes into play.  I recently discovered this when I flew from London to Kathmandu – via Johannesburg (!). This came about because the trips to the UK and Nepal were funded by different projects.  Perversely, the financial costs of a return ticket to the UK from South Africa and then to Nepal from South Africa were less than half the cost of a multi-sector trip (South Africa-UK-Nepal-South Africa).  Since projects are held accountable for financial costs, this was the logical decision. But what if projects had not only a financial budget, but also a carbon one?

A carbon budget would formalise and make explicit the considerations of emissions.  If calls for proposals gave indicative financial and carbon budgets, projects would have to be designed to take this into account.  It would also mean that cases like my convoluted flight routing would be less likely to happen, because the carbon costs would not be negated by the financial costs.

There are additional arguments for carbon budgeting as opposed to other popular options, such as carbon offsetting.  Carbon offsetting is essentially predicated on a carbon pricing system. Depending on the quantity of carbon dioxide that will be emitted from your travel, money can be invested in activities that will take the equivalent amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere, for example through carbon sequestration activities (such as planting trees) or through the avoided emissions that result from clean energy projects being implemented in developing countries that have lower emissions than fossil fuel-powered energy.

Just like in the “reduce-reuse-recycle”, where the third option (recycle) is good, second option (reuse) is better and first option (reduce) is best, reducing carbon emissions entirely is preferential to offsetting (although, of course, offsetting is better than business as usual).  Conditions applied by many research funders and donors are often not conducive to including offsetting in financial budgets. With the call for proposals for Future Climate For Africa, for example, there was no provision for carbon offsetting of flights. This is despite the fact that travel by DFID staff (and in fact all other government staff in the UK) has been offset for the last decade.  If we had a carbon budget for a project alongside a financial one, we would also be forced to take decisions that ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of travel that would likely result in an overall reduction, as opposed to offsetting what we would do if we didn’t have to consider carbon.

With international and transdisiciplinary projects likely to continue, it is unlikely that we are going to do away with the need to travel.  Whilst many of us implicitly consider carbon costs alongside financial costs in our decisions, funders and donors could help to make this explicit by requiring carbon budgets alongside financial ones.  As well as prompting more consideration of the real cost-benefit analysis of travel, it would avoid perverse situations such as the one I experienced, where the financial cost was the only factor considered in routing.  Of course it would not be easy. Deciding how to set carbon budgets in calls for proposals, or what acceptable carbon budgets would look like in proposals would be tricky. But the same is the case for financial budgets, and we manage to make that work.  I firmly believe it would be worth the effort.

Katharine Vincent, after discussions with Joanna Pardoe, Rebecka Henriksson Malinga, Neha Mittal, Estelle Rouhaud and Declan Conway