Aware of and worried about the problem—yet themselves polluters

A survey of French research personnel in response to climate change

Climate change and concern about it looms increasingly large in the media and the public institution environment. The scientific community has been alerting people to the risks for many years already, encouraging them to change their consumption habits. And yet in the context of their own work, research actors themselves engage in practices that substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). More than 6,000 members of the French research world answered the “Inquiets mais Pollueurs” survey, in which researchers Marianne Blanchard (CERTOP, Université de Toulouse – Jean Jaurès), Milan Bouchet-Valat (Ined), Damien Cartron (CMH, CNRS), Jérôme Greffion (IDHES, Université Paris Nanterre) and Julien Gros (LEST, CNRS) investigate research-related practices, research actors’ representations of the current climate emergency, and what those actors are willing to do to reduce the emissions caused by their profession. 

An acute awareness of climate issues that is inconsistent with research actors’ practices

For several years now, researchers have been demonstrating the role played by human activities in GHGs and their effects on climate change. The scientific community was the first group to call on citizens to modify their consumption behaviors. But scientific specialists of climate and the environment studying the subject have pointed out what appears a paradox between research actors’ discourse and the considerable pollution caused by research-related practices. In fact, several studies have shown that the greenhouse gas emissions produced by scientists are greater than average emissions in the population at large. This is explained in large degree by researchers’ regular airplane travel to collect data and attend conferences: 58% of researcher survey respondents travelled by air as part of their work in 2019, producing on the order of two tons of CO2. But there are other sources of pollution in their work, such as IT equipment, home-work commutes, and electricity consumption. Moreover, regular renewal of IT equipment—62% of respondents own devices that date back less than 5 years—further increases environmental and energy costs since GHG emissions are calculated based on a device’s entire life cycle. In fact, IT equipment manufacturing is responsible for more than half of total greenhouse gas emissions, and requires heavy use of resources, notably rare metals. More frugal use of IT equipment would reduce GHGs—especially since some respondents report that they do not need all their devices. This finding could be explained in part by the fact that research is subject to project-based funding, which offers incentives to invest in IT material of debatable utility in order to exhaust allotted funding before the project contract ends. 

A scientific community ready and willing to change its practices

Often acutely aware of the impact of their professional activity on the environment, the research actors questioned said they were ready and willing to try to reduce their emissions by 2030—by purchasing less IT equipment, for example, driving to work, and reducing air travel. They also expressed fears about possible effects of these changes; specifically, less successful professional integration of young researchers (54% of respondents), increased bureaucracy (44%), and the fear that French research will become isolated from the rest of the world (43%). These risks concern research operations as they are organized today, but simple solutions exist, to which most respondents would assent. These touch on global policies—e.g., institutional carbon offset payments—as well as changes that would have greater direct impact on respondents’ daily work lives, such as banning air travel when the same distance can be covered in less than 6 hours by train and having “locavore” or vegetarian work-related buffet. In the post-pandemic context, many research personnel have already tried out new ways of doing things—the democratization of videoconferencing is the most concrete example. Overall, the COVID pandemic demonstrated that individuals and organizations are capable of changing their behaviors, radically in some cases, when up against a serious threat. It is now up to research institution directors to actively promote and accompany profound practical transformations to combat climate change. 

Source: Marianne Blanchard, Milan Bouchet-Valat, Damien Cartron, Jérôme Greffion, Julien Gros, 2022, Inquiets mais pollueurs : une enquête sur le personnel de la recherche française face au changement climatique, Document de travail.

Contact: Milan Bouchet-Valat

Online: August 2022