“How does one cross the Atlantic in an environmentally-friendly way?” I asked myself.* A few weeks earlier I had been challenged by a fellow student who had attended a university-run course “Carbon Conversations”. I then began to reflect on the health and environmental impact of my global health research and to consider ways in which I might reduce my climate change burden. Struggling to find a satisfactory answer to my question, I approached a local sustainability advisor who explained that the alternatives to “door-to-door” air travel were likely to involve significant time costs and/or financial costs. No feasible alternatives. It was a disappointing response, especially after reflecting on the potential global health cost of spending over 20 hours on aeroplanes for my research. Could a solution be found to minimise the global health impact of overseas travel which remains essential for many studying and working in global health with limited time and restricted budgets?
It is widely accepted that high carbon usage and emission contributes to global climate change. Studies have reported that the likely direct health impacts of global climate change include those associated with an increase in heatwaves and a rise in vector-borne diseases such as malaria. Indirect health impacts may include sanitation problems secondary water shortages and malnutrition due to a rise in food costs as a result of reduced food production. People living in less developed regions are predicted to experience the greatest direct and indirect health impacts of climate change.
Hard policies are already being implemented by national and global bodies to reduce carbon emissions through initiatives such as improving rail networks and increasing taxes on fuel and high-emission vehicles. Could “softer” approaches at a local level be effectively employed by individual members of the working and studying global health community in order to tackle the problem of climate change which threatens to have a negative health impact on many populations? It is certainly never too late to consider this suggestion. It was only in 2013 that the UN Development Programme for Europe and Asia for the first time assessed the carbon footprint of one of its global health projects. We know that travel and transportation are important contributors to the climate change problem, and that many staff and students in global health are likely to travel for work purposes. Perhaps responsible travel is an approach and practice that could be promoted more widely and emphasised more strongly within the global health community.
Practically speaking, adopting this approach might mean that within academic departments of global health, individuals who plan to travel would be encouraged to consider and attempt to address the issue of climate change when writing project proposals, funding applications, dissertations, and theses. For example, a postdoctoral researcher applying for funding to attend a global health conference in Brussels might choose to budget for the additional time and financial cost of travelling to Paris by ferry and train. At the same time she could be offset these extra costs against savings made by booking more modest accommodation. Similarly, a PhD student involved in global health data collection in Asia might include a reflective paragraph in his thesis acknowledging the health impact of climate change due to travel. He could also describe the challenges encountered and steps taken to reducing the travel-related carbon emissions associated with his research.
Finally, we need to consider not only the immediate costs of changing our travel habits, but also the longer-term global health costs of not taking action to promote a low carbon future worldwide. Time and money are important and even when both are limited, global health workers and students can still explore and consider more responsible ways of travelling. If we choose to spend years studying and working to improve global health today, let us also choose to leave a shrinking carbon footprint that will have not have a significant negative impact on global health tomorrow .
Dr Anne Aboaja
Dr Anne Aboaja, is a Global Health PhD Researcher, Psychiatrist and Member of the Global Health PhD Network at the University of Edinburgh
*When I asked this question, I did not have in mind ticking a box during an online airline booking in order to offset my carbon emissions. Instead I entertained the idea of spending a couple of weeks on a low-cost transatlantic crossing followed by a scenic, and possibly bumpy, road trip on public transport to my destination, sensibly using the time to read and critically review journal articles, write papers for publication, practise language skills, and creatively think through research problems encountered. Unrealistic? Maybe. Maybe not. In the spirit of sustainable global health? Definitely.