Written by: Lalith Polepeddi, Research Scientist, Global Change Program
Work-related air travel at Georgia Tech fell by 97% in April 2020 relative to April 2019, offering a glimpse into how Georgia Tech can make inroads towards its emissions reductions goals after the pandemic eases.
COVID-19 has led to dramatic changes in air travel worldwide, with air traffic volumes down by 95%. An analysis of Georgia Tech’s flight data by the Institute’s Global Change Program in partnership with the Office of Campus Sustainability reveals a near-complete cessation of business-related air travel at Georgia Tech in April 2020. This is part of a sustained air travel reduction that began in mid-March and will likely continue for much of the summer. Monthly flight records available through the university's travel booking system cover roughly 80% of all business-related air travel at Georgia Tech. These flight data were converted into CO2 emissions using a calculator published by the University of British Columbia.
Based on our initial analysis, COVID-19 has led to a steep decline in air travel emissions beginning in the second week of March, coinciding with government restrictions on travel. By April 1, nearly all flights had ceased. Comparing this year’s data with last year’s data from the same months, the disruptions in air travel led to emissions reductions of 59% in March and 97% in April.
Looking ahead, these data pose interesting questions about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on campus air travel patterns. Is the decline in air travel emissions temporary, and will air travel bounce back to pre-pandemic levels once it is safe to fly? Or will the current shift to remote work spur new low-carbon travel behaviors that achieve sustained reductions in campus air travel emissions?
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, Georgia Tech has an opportunity to advance its goal to become carbon neutral by 2050 by implementing measures that support low-carbon travel practices for the longer term. Without any intervention, it is conceivable that air travel emissions will eventually return to pre-pandemic levels, which would be a missed opportunity to move Georgia Tech closer to its 2050 goal.
The campus flight data reveal several possible avenues for achieving significant reductions in emissions.
Of all flights taken in calendar year (CY) 2019, 29% had a departure and return within 24 hours. Nearly all (89%) of these flights were medium haul flights (300-2300mi). These single-day trips accounted for over 360,000 metric tons CO2e, which comprised 15% of total air travel emissions during CY 2019. The carbon impact of these single day flights is equivalent to the emissions of 78,000 cars over one year. Assuming a social cost of carbon of $40 per ton CO2e, the estimated costs of these single day flights amount to over $14M.
Long haul flights, or flights over 2300mi, taken in CY 2019 comprised 35% of all flights, and generated 69% of all air travel emissions. Long haul flights that had a duration of three days or less generated 20% of all air travel emissions.
If a portion of these flights could be replaced by video meetings, Georgia Tech could achieve significant emissions and avoided costs of flights, hotels, and ground transportation. While there is broad consensus that remote or virtual meetings are not as enjoyable as in person meetings, Georgia Tech researchers are playing a key role in advancing virtual meeting technology to provide a more valuable user experience. For example, Blair MacIntyre, Professor in the School of Interactive Computing recently leveraged virtual reality technology to organize a 100% virtual conference. Furthermore, a shift to more remote and virtual meetings would accommodate employees who are unable to travel due to physical disability, family obligations, or teaching duties.
This initial analysis shows that the pandemic has already had a profound impact on air travel emissions at Georgia Tech. The coming months will show just how lasting that impact will be on Georgia Tech’s emissions, a trajectory that depends on individual employee choices as well as Institute-level policies and practices.
Acknowledgements: Kim Cobb (EAS), Anne Rogers (OCS), and Alice Favero (PUBP) reviewed earlier drafts and Linda Wilkinson and Natsu Green (Travel Inc) compiled the Georgia Tech flight data presented herein. If you are interested in exploring Georgia Tech flight data, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.