Christine Bader: The climate cost of reunion flights

##Christine Bader
##Christine Bader


It’s reunion season, when tens of thousands of U.S. college graduates return to their alma maters for a weekend of nostalgia and celebration.

I’ve attended every quinquennial reunion of the Amherst College Class of 1993. But this weekend, while my classmates converge on our beautiful Western Massachusetts campus, I’ll be home in McMinnville.

I still love Amherst, but flights to Boston and back would emit 1.5 metric tons of CO2 equivalent. That’s enough to melt 47.5 square feet of Arctic sea ice — half the size of my junior year dorm room.

If I did attend, I’d hear myriad updates from the college, including updates on its ambitious sustainability goals. This is not unique to Amherst, as some 700 colleges and universities have joined initiatives like the Climate Leadership Commitment and the Race to Zero, pledging to shrink their carbon footprints.

(Linfield is a conspicuous exception, having no publicly available plans or even contact information for campus sustainability. And this year’s senior environmental studies majors just produced a sustainability inventory that showed Linfield lagging behind its peers on several fronts.)

But for all of the attention schools are paying to their environmental impacts, travel for big campus events doesn’t register — a major oversight.

Organizations assessing their carbon footprints start with what the widely accepted Greenhouse Gas Protocol refers to as Scope 1 and 2 emissions — carbon produced by direct activities, like energy usage, and by purchased electricity, steam, heat or cooling. Scope 3 includes travel and other so-called “indirect” emissions.

Some schools are tackling Scope 3 by tallying faculty and staff commutes, study abroad programs and athletic programs. But for some of those schools, the impacts of all of that travel combined may be dwarfed by a single weekend of visitors coming to party.

For example, in its 2020-25 transportation strategic plan, the University of Oregon committed to supporting “low-carbon travel options to, from and through campus.” But its focus is on the daily movements of students, staff and faculty — not the alumni and families who help fill the 60,000 seats at Autzen Stadium for Homecoming.

That said, half of UO students are from in-state. So while hordes of people may descend on Eugene and other big state universities for homecomings and reunions, many are driving, not flying.

Driving is much less environmentally damaging than flying.

According to Flight Free USA, skipping my single PDX-BOS roundtrip eliminates as much carbon as carpooling on the average American commute for 1.4 years. So the reunion carbon footprint of schools with more in-state students is probably much smaller than that of schools that enroll students from all over the world, at least on a per-alum basis.

Yet those globally minded schools proudly proclaim they are preparing students to lead the world in tackling the world’s biggest challenges — including climate change. Don’t they have an even greater responsibility to develop a more sustainable reunion model?

Pulling up Harvard’s website last week, the very first words popping up center screen were “Climate Action.” But Harvard doesn’t mention reunions in its new sustainability plan, despite having hosted 10,000 people for its 2022 reunion.

Most attendees probably flew. Of Harvard’s Class of 2026, just 16.6% are from New England, while 14.8% are international.

Unlike most colleges, which encourage alumni to return every five years, Princeton famously welcomes back every class every year. This year, it is expecting more than 25,000 graduates to attend, traveling an average of 1,900 miles roundtrip. And only 14% of the members of its Class of 2026 are from its home state of New Jersey.

The only public nod to the environmental impact on Princeton’s 2022 reunion website was this gentle suggestion: “To support sustainability at Reunions, alumni are encouraged to bring reusable water bottles and recycle, when possible.” This year’s reunion website has no mention of sustainability at all.

What should schools do, beyond providing more eco-friendly beer bongs?

Many schools are expanding their virtual programming to keep farflung alumni engaged.

Every fall, Amherst alumni chapters around the world rent out sports bars to telecast the football game against our rival school. Personally, I would rather gather with alumni in my area to watch livestreamed reunion events.

Amherst’s director of sustainability and alumni relations staff told me the school hopes to create more options for remote participation in the future. In the meantime, my classmates attending our reunion have promised to FaceTime me into Happy Hour.

The pandemic taught us that Zoom can work. But it also taught us that in-person gatherings are important.

Environmental activist and writer George Monbiot coined the term “love miles” — the distance you must travel to see friends and family.

In part because of the global community and perspective that my college education cultivated, I have friends and family all over the world. And I will still fly to be with them, even at future reunions.

But now those trips have to fit within my annual love miles budget, which I’ve already allocated for 2023 through visits to parents and in-laws. I spent 17 years working for BP, Amazon and the United Nations, living and traveling around the world. I averaged one flight per month — many of them international — so have some staying-put to catch up on.

In the coming years, the average distance between people and the colleges they attended may shrink. Separate surveys by America’s Promise Alliance and the Strada Education Network found that following the disruptions of the pandemic, nearly a third of students favor a school closer to home — for in-state tuition, lower travel costs and/or proximity to family.

Alumni who do travel to reunions can participate in carbon offset programs, which enable people to invest in programs like tree-planting, designed to take greenhouse gases out of the air in amounts equivalent to what their activities are emitting. Dickinson College in Pennsylvania offers anyone, including alumni, the opportunity to purchase offsets on behalf of the college.

According to the Times of India, the Class of 1998 from India’s Yeshwantrao Chavan College of Engineering calculated the carbon footprint of its 25th reunion, including travel, food consumption, food waste and electricity. The class then partnered with the school’s forestry department to plant a bamboo stand to offset that footprint, declaring its reunion carbon neutral.

There’s a petition circulating among Princeton alumni asking their school to move to a carbon neutral and zero waste reunion system by composting food waste, eliminating single-use plastic and encouraging vegetarian options, which have smaller carbon footprints than beef. That and offering carbon offsets for all the travel.

But offset programs vary widely in credibility and effectiveness, and allow those who can afford it to buy their way out of a problem that still exist. It is better to reduce emissions in the first place.

For example, encouraging alumni to come back every 10 years instead of every five — or for Princeton, every other year — would cut the associated carbon footprint in half.

Whether alumni fly, drive or walk to reunion is not a school’s responsibility. But denying responsibility doesn’t help solve global warming, which affects us all.

Thankfully, our nation’s colleges and universities are all about taking on big challenges. (Amherst’s mission is Terras Irradient: “Let them give light to the world.”)

Let the preservation of our planet be one of those endeavors that we take on with the same rigor and integrity with which we take on our rivals at Homecoming. That would be an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Guest writer Christine Bader, an author, Amherst graduate and former corporate executive, lives in McMinnville with her husband, daughter and son. She teaches in Linfield University’s master of science in business program. She also serves as assistant coach of the Valley Panthers Girls Rugby Club, which finished second in the state this year. 


Bill B

I guess we should stop taking vacations as well.


And all of the elites and celebrities taking private jets to climate conferences. Sucks to be the little people.

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