‘Sustainability and Global Justice’

Bachelors & Masters

2020/21 Scientific Travel and Sustainability

The Themenklasse 2020/21 analyzed scientific business trips and travels, a substantial source of CO2 emissions at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). Both quantitative and qualitative methods were used to provide the data basis of the effects of scientific travel and to map their explanatory patterns. Eventually, options for action were identified to compensate emitted CO2 emissions. The interplay of these three sub-areas is intended to function as a basis for a change towards more climate-conscious travel and the implementation of a CO2-compensation system at the university.

The study found that a fundamental rethinking of scientific travel as well as the compensation of the CO2 emissions can help to significantly reduce HU’s ecological footprint. By implementing this, the university could take a big step towards becoming a sustainable university and perhaps even become a role model. However, the Themenklasse demonstrated that there is still considerable need for improvement in this area.

The Themenklasse 2020/21 also positions itself emphatically on the possibilities and responsibility in the academic field for more sustainability.

Maame Appiah-Nuamah, Richard Berner, Sophia Schroth, Jonas Wittern and Lysianne Wolf

The subgroup of the Themenklasse students intended to quantify the current greenhouse gas emissions of scientific travels related to the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). The students examined documents from the travel office at the university and analyzed 100 random drawn travel applications and reimbursements from 2019. The extrapolation showed that 6300 ± 500 scientific travels where conducted, resulting in 4850t ± 1950t CO2-emissions. The variance is caused by the relatively small sample size. By means of travel inside the European Union, two out of three trips were undertaken by train, whereas outside of the EU, two out of three trips were undertaken by plane. The results of the group showed conclusively that short-distanced intercontinental flights resulted in the highest greenhouse gas emissions from scientific travels.

Antonia Gipp, Theresa Hohmann, Hannah Prawitz, Jana Katharina Stahl, Patricia Usée and Yannic Vitz

The subgroup of Themenklasse students questioned the reasons for undertaking scientific travels and asked professors and scientific employees for their motivation, causes and benefits of taking part in international conferences and bilateral meetings. The group used both qualitative (interviews) and quantitative (survey) methods. Their results showed that the participation on international conferences is mainly motivated by:

  • Presenting scientific ideas and results
  • Establishing new or deepening existing contacts and networks
  • Taking part in discussions, seeking feed-back and/or redefining academic ideas and endeavors
  • Obtaining information about the recent state of research on a specific topic

Asked about online formats, many interviewees stated that they are willing to participate more often at online conferences and conventions. These where certified to be suited for presenting scientific ideas and results and obtaining information about the recent state of research on a specific topic. Nonetheless, online formats were described at moderately suited for taking part in discussions and getting feedback. Furthermore, interviewees and polled stated that online formats are not suited for connecting and establishing or deepening contacts or networks. This can be a disadvantage for junior scientists who have not yet been able to establish an adequate scientific network.

Johannes Nöfer, Franka Pätzke, Paul Trabhardt and Nelly Unger

Although climate protection requires a swift and comprehensive reduction of CO2 emissions, the Themenklasse estimated that a radical short-term reduction and an overall long-term discontinuation of scientific travels seems rather visionary. Thus, this subgroup of Themenklasse students conclusively discussed the usage of a compensation system to offset ongoing greenhouse gas emissions resulting from scientific travels at the the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). The research included a critical analysis of greenhouse gas compensation mechanisms from a climate-ethical position. Furthermore, the students examined the legal and institutional requirements to accomplish such a system at the HU and illustrated compensation approaches, providers, and programs at a global scale. Eventually the students provided five options for the implementation of CO2 compensation to compensate scientific travels at the HU. Nonetheless, the students emphasized that a compensation system should be seen as a last resort following avoidance and reduction.

Image credit: Eva Darron via