Campus policies drive societal change

The coronavirus crisis has triggered a boom in virtual collaboration as an alternative to flying. Might it be possible to seize on this experience to shape the future of sustainable mobility?

ETH Zurich is primarily known for its outstanding research and teaching. But it also strives to apply the principles of sustainability on campus and channel them into wider society. "Our decisions and actions set important examples, especially in regard to the climate," says Ulrich Weidmann, Vice President for Infrastructure. That’s why ETH strives to make sustainability an integral part of its research, teaching and working practices - for example, by operating an Anergy Grid and deploying electric buses for the shuttle service between Zentrum and Hönggerberg.

Two more striking examples of this commitment are an ETH staff unit responsible for sustainability and a dedicated hub for mobility questions. The first of these - ETH Sustainability - connects up stakeholders and initiatives in the field of sustainability as well as implementing its own projects. These include the "Climate Programme for ETH Catering", which seeks to help on-campus catering companies find eco-friendly ways to feed their customers. The second example is the mobility platform, which is a hub for climate-friendly business trips and campus mobility. One pioneering initiative is a project to reduce air travel, which Weidmann launched in 2017. The popularity of virtual meetings as an alternative to flying received an unexpected boost as a result of the pandemic.

Lessons from a crisis

The coronavirus crisis has given a powerful boost to digital communications and fuelled a shift towards online teaching, virtual conferences and working from home. "The past few months have shown what’s possible," says Susann Görlinger, who heads up the air travel project. She argues the time has come to harness this momentum and encourage the scientific community to embrace sustainable mobility. Görlinger is aware that the decision to avoid flying has not come voluntarily, but points out how impressive it is to see people changing their habits so quickly.

Having spent the past four years promoting an ETH-wide reassessment of the need for air travel, she is something of an expert in this field. The project’s slogan is "Stay grounded - keep connected", and the aim is to reduce the CO2 emissions of business trips made by air. Video conferences have been a high priority right from the start. The project is seen as particularly ambitious because it seeks to motivate members of ETH to make conscious choices to change their behaviour, as well as striving for a long-term shift in values among the academic community. This makes ETH one of the first universities in the world to address a serious conflict of interests: research needs international collaboration, yet universities are precisely the kind of institutions that should be promoting climate-sensitive policies. For too many years, collaboration was synonymous with flying.

All that changed when the crisis hit. "As you might expect, this spring saw a big jump in people’s willingness to opt for virtual forms of collaboration over flying," says Görlinger. This is also reflected in an ongoing online survey of people’s experiences with online events, which was launched in early March by the air travel project in collaboration with the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University.

Key benefits - and the coffee break challenge

"Moving events online offers all sorts of benefits - and not just for the environment," says Görlinger. As well as cutting costs, it also saves time and is widely regarded as more family-friendly. In short, going virtual is not just more eco-friendly but also more cost-effective and socially responsible - not least because it opens the door for regions and communities with small budgets to participate in conferences. One major downside is the difficulty of finding virtual substitutes for informal moments such as coffee breaks, which provide an opportunity to engage with participants one-on-one.

Scientific support for the air travel project is provided by graduate psychologist Agnes Kreil, a doctoral candidate in the Transdisciplinarity Lab at ETH Zurich. She admits there are those who feel the coronavirus is just something to be overcome before returning to how things were before. "But most people are showing at least some signs of rethinking their attitude," she says.

Maintaining the momentum

But will that be enough to make a lasting change? Kreil says it depends: "This experience has shown us how to run virtual meetings. But if we choose to stop here and just criticise all the shortcomings, we’ll lose our impetus." To lock in these behavioural changes beyond the coronavirus crisis, we also need to be creative and find attractive solutions that people are happy to use - including ways to forge closer ties between people online.

"It’s not just about individuals taking responsibility," says Görlinger. "You also need institutions to put the right frameworks in place." That’s why the air travel project is always on the lookout for innovative tools, tips and formats to highlight as best practices on their website. Good examples are often hard to find, particularly for bigger events. To get a better idea of people’s attitudes towards air travel and the information they need, the team is also planning to survey additional groups such as scientific staff and students.

Görlinger has already presented the air travel project to a number of networks and committees. Her experiences have attracted considerable interest from universities and other organisations, both nationally and internationally. Numerous universities have already launched similar initiatives. If the air travel project succeeds in achieving the desired change in values, ETH could be on course to maintain, or even extend, its pioneering role. Ultimately, advocating a more sensible approach to flying could also serve as a model for society as a whole.

This text has been published in the 20/04 issue of the Globe magazine.


Ulrich Weidmann is a Professor of Transport Systems at ETH Zurich and Vice President for Infrastructure.

Susann Görlinger heads up the air travel project.

Agnes Kreil is a doctoral candidate in the Transdisciplinarity Lab. She provides scientific support for the air travel project.

Michael Keller