The University of York’s Executive Board spent at least £58,000 on domestic and international flights over three years, a Vision investigation has revealed.
Between August 2015 and July 2018, the University’s 13-member executive flew to various destinations across the world, including New York, Dublin, Brussels, Ghana, Chun’an, Kuala Lumpur and Tokyo, in total taking at least 88 flights and covering more than 204,000 air miles at a cost of over £58,000 and at least 35,377kg of carbon dioxide emissions.
The University’s top brass spent at least £23,600 on domestic and international flights in 2016/17, while the equivalent figures for 2015/16 and 2017/18 were at least £17,400 and £17,200, respectively.
Unsurprisingly, the University’s top two executives are accountable for the biggest slice of the board’s flight costs, air miles and carbon dioxide emissions during the three year period studied. Then-Vice-Chancellor, professor Koen Lamberts and current Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, professor Saul Tendler are responsible for 65% of the Board’s overall flying expenses, 60% of its air miles, and 59% of its carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of jet fuel.
Vision has uncovered some glaring discrepancies in the cost of flights taken to the same destination at a similar time by different members of the executive. Most significantly, Lamberts purchased a return flight from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur in January 2018 for £3237.34 for a trip in late March that year, while pro-vice-chancellor, professor John Robinson flew to Kuala Lumpur from Leeds and back in early May 2018 for £928.47; a ticket booked just one month after Lamberts’ yet significantly cheaper, suggesting a wasteful approach to flight spending and lack of a coherent policy.
A second clear inconsistency in flight expenses was found in a trip to a Brexit workshop in Brussels in February 2017, to which both Lamberts and Tendler went. However, Lamberts’ round-trip cost £264.17, while Tendler’s was £435.87 despite both trips being booked in the same month.
Furthermore, some of the flights taken by Board members were during the period of the longest-ever strike in UK higher education history. Between 22 February and 20 March 2018, 42,000 members of the University and College Union went on strike over the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which affected over a million students in lost teaching hours, including many at the University of York.
During this period, two Board members jetted off to destinations within the UK and abroad. Professor Judith Buchanan, then-dean of the Faculty of the Arts and Humanities, headed for Stockholm and Copenhagen on the 19 March 2018, while Heidi Fraser-Krauss, deputy registrar and director of Corporate and Information Services, flew from Leeds to Dublin earlier that same month.
Within the flight expenses records are several domestic flights. While convenient, these are arguably avoidable and not an ethical use of University funds. Pro-vice-chancellor professor Deborah Smith flew from Exeter to Edinburgh in November 2017. Meanwhile, the need for the dean of the Faculty of the Social Sciences, Professor Stuart Bell, to fly from Manchester to Norwich in April 2018, – emitting 56kg of CO2 – as opposed to travelling on public transport when he took the return leg by train the following day is certainly questionable. The emissions of these two flights combined is more than the annual emissions of a person in Mali, Chad, Ethiopia, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, or Uganda.
The climate impact from the burning of jet fuel for the flights taken by the Board over the three year period under review has been calculated at 35,377kg of CO2 emissions, using a calculator provided by German non-profit Atmosfair. That is equivalent to the carbon footprint of 8.4 people living in Sweden or 22 people in India for a year, or 17.6 average cars on UK roads for a whole year, according to figures from Our World in Data and Atmosfair.
The number of air miles and CO2 emissions produced by the Board’s flight habits have increased year on year between 2015 and 2018, to a climax of at least 79,284 air miles and 13,851kg of CO2 in 2017/18.
This rising trajectory reflects the trend seen in wider society. Aviation emissions currently account for 2% of global emissions and they have been increasing steadily over several decades. More worryingly, according to estimates made by researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, they could triple by 2050. If the world continues on this upward trajectory, the chances of limiting global warming to the internationally agreed ‘safe’ level of two degrees look increasingly slim, which will have catastrophic and unpredictable consequences for the planet.
The University is certainly not geared towards cutting flight costs, air miles, or emissions. With impending climate crisis and aviation a major cause thereof, there is a need for transition away from physical visits to universities, conferences and panels overseas to digital conduct of these. Discussions of research strategy, meetings with senior academics, and other officials and partner organisations could be conducted digitally.
To meet the Paris Accord goal of two degrees and keep global warming at a sustainable level, flying habits need to be significantly limited. In order to limit global warming to two degrees by 2050, everyone would have to emit no more than 2,300kg of CO2 annually – the equivalent to less than one return flight from Manchester to Kuala Lumpur – according to figures provided by Atmosfair. Ex-VC Koen Lamberts comfortably exceeded this limit just from flying to conduct university business in each of the three years reviewed by Vision, but the position at the top of the Executive Board is now occupied by Professor Charlie Jeffery.
He left a legacy of divestment from fossil fuels and investment in renewable energy and green technologies during his time as vice-chancellor at the University of Edinburgh. In his new role here at York, only time will tell if his flight habits correlate with his supposed climate consciousness or reflect a continuation of his predecessor.