As of this academic year, all staff members of KU Leuven who travel by air for work-related trips will be required to pay a CO2 compensation. The money raised through these contributions, which were voluntary until now and amount to €40 per tonne of CO2 emitted, will be invested in various sustainable initiatives. Gerard Govers, Vice Rector for Sustainability, provides more information.
“With this decision, we want to take the lead when it comes to sustainable mobility. Worldwide, only a few universities ask their staff members to pay a compensation for air travel that approximates the actual societal cost of CO2 emissions,” says Rector Luc Sels. Gerard Govers, Vice Rector for Sustainability Policy, agrees with him: “As a University, it’s our duty to take care of future generations. After all, we earn our living by educating young people. Sustainability is a logical part of this. Saying that sustainability is important to us is only credible if we incorporate it into our own actions.”
The entire contribution goes to KU Leuven's Climate Fund, which focuses on four projects. For the first project, the University is collaborating with Carbon Alt Delete, a non-profit organisation that buys voluntary emission reductions. The money they invest this way goes to CO2-free projects that reduce emissions. Carbon Alt Delete was founded by researchers of KU Leuven.
Part of the money raised is also invested in reforestation. “Because trees remove CO2 from the air”, explains Govers. "To monitor this properly, we’re collaborating with Trees for Farmers, an organisation that has a great deal of experience with this type of project.”
Thirdly, the University wants to support its own research on sustainability. The money raised for this purpose will be saved up until there is a sufficiently large budget to provide proper support.
Finally, part of the budget will go towards improving the videoconferencing infrastructure at KU Leuven. “It’s an indirect way of limiting the work-related trips of our staff, which will also lead to a reduction in CO2 emissions. In other words, these last two initiatives are not just about offsetting emissions”, says Govers.
Staff members were able to vote on the division of the budget between the four projects. “Reforestation turned out to be the most popular choice. When the new system is introduced, we will ask everyone's opinion again to see whether the proportions are still the same. The budget will then be proportionally divided between the four options. We will, of course, report on this in a transparent manner.”
The expansion of the system had been in the pipeline for some time. “We used the first two years after the introduction of the voluntary contribution to listen to our staff. One of the things we learned was that many people are in favour of a university-wide system.” The COVID-19 crisis has, of course, drastically reduced air travel in recent months. “In time, however, air traffic will undoubtedly resume, and by then our system will be up and running.”
“In the meantime, we have also acquired a number of partners: the FWO and VLAIO now allow the CO2 compensation to be submitted as a project cost.” The researchers can also use their own research funds or the Basic Operating Grant to pay for it. If these funds are not available (for instance for administrative and technical staff) the contribution will be collected from the employee's unit.
Being so limited in our travel options over the past few months has already taught us that many things can be organised remotely. By introducing the system on an individual level, Govers hopes that staff members will always consider well whether it’s necessary to fly somewhere. Obviously, certain trips - for studies abroad, fieldwork or an intense collaboration, for instance - cannot be replaced by an online alternative.
One side note: staff members who object to the new system can still choose to opt out. “But we will ask why they decided to do so, as we can only learn from this. And we’ll ask again nicely the following year.”
“We are one of the few universities in the world with a general CO2 compensation for air travel that is collected individually. Moreover, we distinguish ourselves by the size of the contribution, as many organisations charge much less. The calculation we use approximates to the real social cost of CO2 emissions. So, with this system, we want to play a leading role worldwide when it comes to sustainable mobility.”
“Furthermore, we want to limit air travel as much as possible. That's why we encourage travelling by train for shorter distances, for instance.” European flights fall under the European system for emission rights. A reduction in the number of flights on our continent therefore means that these emission rights will be used in another sector. “It is a good system because the maximum amount of emissions goes down every year. However, the CO2 contributions paid by the airlines don’t cover the social cost of the CO2 emissions they cause. Moreover, by discouraging air travel, we want to send a clear signal and influence society.”
“A university such as KU Leuven cannot do without air travel, not entirely at least. As long as green air travel is not possible, we must try to remove CO2 from the air in another way. And in this case, a CO2 contribution is the best alternative to compensate for your emissions.”
This article was first published on 23 September by KU Leuven.