Green Futures

Does Geography have an emissions problem?

By Whitney Love, University of Exeter, UK and Joe Williams, Cardiff University, UK

Geography is a discipline grounded in researching environmental challenges and sustainability. It is therefore well situated, and arguably duty-bound, to help solve the climate crisis. Commitments to achieving net zero emissions require deep and sustained transformation in all sectors and industries. Schools and universities are no different. Research and teaching in higher education are linked to greenhouse gas emissions, and we should look at ways to change the sector so that universities can research and teach climate change without adding to the problem.

Carbon is embedded in Geography research and teaching in all sorts of ways. In a recent article, we used the Durham University Geography Department in the UK as a case study, to build up a picture of where emissions come from and map how they can be reduced. We found that the three largest sources of emissions associated with this department were: 1) campus-based emissions, such as energy used heating the buildings and running lab equipment; 2) air travel for staff research activities, and 3) air travel for student fieldtrips.

Students as Stakeholders

Geography students should be central to these discussions. Current students can be thought of as the climate change generation, with the most to lose from continued inaction on climate change challenges.

Our research involved talking to students about their perceptions of environmental sustainability at the university. We found that 96% of students agreed that sustainability on campus was important to them, but 62% said the university was not doing enough. Overall, we found a lot of support among students for a range of different strategies to reduce the carbon intensity of Geography as a discipline (see figure below). Importantly, the student voice should facilitate change and their perspectives included in decision-making.

We asked students which strategies they would be most supportive of for addressing climate change challenges within Geography.

The controversy of fieldtrips

Fieldwork is a fundamental part both of teaching Geography and doing geographical research. Exploring social and environmental challenges in real places and across diverse contexts is what Geography is all about. But travel, particularly by air, is difficult to decarbonise. Like many other Geography departments, air travel was the single largest source of emissions at Durham University. Emissions from air travel in the year preceding the COVID-19 pandemic were three times that from department buildings. Continuing with a business-as-usual approach to fieldwork that requires regular flying is not viable.

The good news is we believe it is possible for geographers to significantly reduce the emissions footprint of our work, without reducing the quality of research or teaching. International fieldtrips give students valuable insights and experiences, so shouldn’t be abandoned. For some areas of geographical research, like glaciology, international travel is often essential to apply taught knowledge. Experiencing places of historical and cultural significance, and immersion into different cultures can also provide valuable learning experiences. But many fieldtrip locations are accessible by train or road/ferry, and some fieldtrips that aren’t could be moved to closer locations. On the research side of things, academics often have international networks and research destinations that require flying. However, it should be possible to fly less and pack more research activities into each trip.

COVID-19 caused significant disruption to fieldwork in 2020 and 2021. As global travel restrictions ease, we should use 2022 as an opportunity to refresh current practices and adopt certain changes to the way we conduct research and teaching. By maintaining some of the working practices adopted during the pandemic, such as conducting global conferences online, the carbon footprint of Geography departments can be significantly reduced, without impacting the quality of research and student education.


About the authors: Whitney Love is an MSc student in Global Sustainability Solutions at the Global Systems Institute, University of Exeter. Joe Williams is a lecturer in Human Geography at Cardiff University. Both authors previously studied/worked at Durham University.

Suggested further reading

Williams, J., Love, W., (2022). Low-Carbon Research and Teaching in Geography: Pathways and Perspectives. The Professional Geographer https://doi.org/10.1080/00330124.2021.1977156

Lawrence, A., & Dowey, N. (2022). Six simple steps towards making GEES fieldwork more accessible and inclusive. Area https://doi.org/10.1111/area.12747

How to cite: Love, W., & Williams, J. (2022, 23 February) Does Geography have an emissions problem? Geography Directions. https://doi.org/10.55203/GD_10001

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