Improving the Benefit-to-Carbon Cost Ratio for University of Washington Air Travel

Executive Summary:

With UW air travel nearly eliminated to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the UW community is looking to rethink our options. We want to take this opportunity to examine the unique benefits of travel to UW students, faculty, and staff  in the context of the high cost of emissions from travel - especially as technological solutions for remote collaboration and learning are being rapidly improved and culturally normalized.

Air travel is a highly carbon intensive choice, yet students value unique world learning experiences while faculty and staff need to collaborate, network and share their findings with others. At the last assessment (2014), air travel made up 11% of UW’s carbon budget. The goal of this proposed project is to identify (and ideally get the campus to implement) policies and protocols that will reduce UW’s carbon emissions associated with flying. The proposed cost of the project is $14,901, which will enable Forrest Baum (a Program on the Environment (PoE) Capstone Student, who drafted this proposal) to collect data about flights taken by faculty, staff and students at UW in 2019; to conduct interviews with UW faculty, staff and students to determine why they fly and assess how their views about alternatives to flying having changed during the COVID crisis; to identify policies and protocols that UW could implement to reduce emissions associated with flying while maintaining its educational and research missions; to create and distribute communication materials across campus and social media about the impact flying has on UW’s carbon footprint and what steps could be taken to reduce these emissions; and, importantly, to document a framework for continued future tracking of UW’s air travel carbon emissions. The funding will enable Forrest to work on this topic full time over the summer and ten hours per week during Autumn and Winter quarters. The work will be supervised by Dr. Kristi Straus (Lecturer, Program on the Environment) and Dr. Rebecca Neumann (Associate Professor, Civil & Environmental Engineering). Dr. Straus is a leader in sustainability education and teaches a class (ENVIR 239: Personal Choices, Broad Impacts) focusing on personal choices and action to combat climate change. Dr. Neumann is passionate about understanding and mitigating climate change, both in her research program and in her personal life.

Student Involvement:

This will be a UW Program on the Environment (PoE) Capstone project conducted by one PoE student, Forrest Baum. Forrest drafted this final proposal. He will:

  1. Review literature of previous studies and current views on the topics involved.
  2. Quantify the CO2 equivalent emissions associated with different types of trips for UW faculty, staff and students, including: to conduct research, attend conferences and meetings, give and host seminars, travel to and from campus for out of state students, travel for athletic games, and study abroad.
  3. Design and implement a study that gathers information not covered in previous inventories.
    • Calculate the CO2 eq associated with out-of-state/international student travel. How often do out-of-state and international students fly round trip home:UW each year? As well as the average distance flown per trip.
    • Assess the benefit of various types of trips (e.g. study abroad, research collaboration, presenting findings) to both the individuals taking the trip and the overall mission of the University, through an online survey of students, faculty and staff.
  4. Determine if and for whom these trips have unintended negative consequences.
  5. Identify policy changes or institutional approaches that minimize air travel with low benefit-to-carbon costs (or have large unintended negative consequences), and enable alternatives to air travel for certain types of trips. 
  6. Provide recommendations and reach out to the appropriate campus units, offices and organizations to enact these policy changes and approaches. 
  7. Use these experiences to create a framework for accessing, compiling and analyzing data needed to continually track UW’s air travel carbon emissions.

Forrest will collect the required data on air travel at UW by harnessing travel reimbursements and trips booked with the central travel account, study abroad enrollments, seminar announcements, trips taken by the athletic department, and surveying students who fly to and from campus. 

Education & Outreach:

The overall goal of this effort is to reduce UW’s carbon emissions. To accomplish this goal, the project will raise awareness about the impact of air travel on UW carbon emissions and identify policies or institutional approaches for reducing these emissions while maintaining the educational and research mission of the university. In 2014, a team of graduate students mentored by the UW Sustainability office documented that air travel comprised 11% of UW’s carbon budget (2014 report here). Importantly, the assessment determined that UW is under counting emissions associated with flying due to a lack of easily accessible data.

Forrest’s efforts for this proposed CSF project will build upon and update the efforts of the 2014 report. His work will be written up as part of his capstone project and will be compiled into several forms. Some of these will be directed at changing UW policies, while some will be directed at changing student, staff, or faculty behavior.

  1. A short Public Service Announcement (PSA) video to share the takeaways and encourage implementation of the identified policies and approaches.
  2. An easily digestible report that will be shared with UW Sustainability, UW Travel Office, the UW Environmental Stewardship Committee, and other relevant offices across campus.
  3. A detailed report providing step-by-step instructions on how to access, compile and analyze data needed to track UW’s air travel carbon emissions in future years.
  4. A visually compelling poster will be made and distributed to environmental Registered Student Organizations (RSOs) on campus
  5. An infographic that will be created expressly for distribution on various UW social media channels (e.g. RSOs, Program on the Environment).

The goal of these outreach products is to encourage implementation of the identified policies and approaches for reducing air travel, while also motivating individuals to reduce their air travel whenever possible.

Environmental Impact:
  • Transportation
Project Longevity:

This specific project will cover three quarters, involving intensive full-time study during the summer quarter and 10 hours per week during the Autumn and winter quarter. We expect this work to be complete at that time, with our results being used to inform concrete steps UW could use to reduce CO2eq associated with flying.  This work should support UW in achieving the goals of the UW Climate Action Plan and UW Sustainability Action Plan. As such, we do not anticipate a need for long term management, maintenance, or funding for this work. As long term University of Washington faculty members, both Kristi and Rebecca are enthusiastic about the opportunities to work with various UW entities to shepherd this project forward and continuously lobby to ensure that recommended policies and approaches are implemented. If additional questions emerge from this work, Kristi and Rebecca will be happy to mentor additional Program on the Environment Capstone Students in finding answers to those questions.

An additional lasting benefit of the work will be a documented framework for streamlining the information-gathering process for the air-travel carbon budget to ensure that future emissions numbers can be gathered and analyzed as a part of the regular UW reporting systems, and be available on a regular basis as needed.

Environmental Problem:

The sustainability challenge is that air travel is carbon intensive, yet often seen as necessary for student learning, and for professional development across student, faculty, and staff communities in the university. Presenting at conferences requiring air travel has often been a requirement of grant funding and an opportunity for career advancement. Previous studies have found that even environmentally conscious members of the university community often utilize a high amount of air travel. There is a general need for society to rapidly reduce carbon emissions to prevent catastrophic impacts of climate change, and the UW community is taking up the challenge. Through the Climate Action Plan, the UW has a goal of being climate neutral by 2050. We have made progress in reducing our emissions, but we need a full assessment of our impacts in order to understand how to achieve our sustainability goals. The UW needs to be aware of the impact flying has on our carbon emissions and needs to actively reduce these emissions while maintaining our mission. Our project will identify policies and approaches for accomplishing this goal, and our work can lead to an overall reduction in UW's carbon emissions. Current prohibition on travel has created an opportunity to test alternatives which are now being considered as viable replacements. By looking into and analyzing the benefits and challenges of air travel compared to alternatives, we hope to give a fuller view of these aspects in all available options.

Explain how the impacts will be measured:

We will measure the impacts of air travel in CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2eq), which is measured in tons of carbon-emission equivalent of greenhouse gases. Surveys to evaluate personal and professional benefits to individuals and the UW mission will be more personal and complex. Evaluation of unintended negative consequences and “replaceability” of air travel will also be evaluated. We will also calculate the potential CO2eq emissions saved by UW if identified policies and approaches are implemented.

Other project impacts:

  • UW Undergraduate Forrest Baum will get hands-on experience with grant proposal writing, effective survey design, and data analysis to answer questions about which he is passionate. The impact will be measured with the completion of his capstone project and formal presentation of his work to the UW and Seattle communities.
  • Campus-wide education about the impact that flying has on UW’s carbon emissions, and the benefit/costs associated with different types of flights. This impact will be measured by the number of campus organizations/offices that read our outreach materials and number of people reached through traditional and social media (e.g., through news stories and outreach campaigns) 
  • University of Washington adopting our recommended approaches will result in reductions in UW travel and associated CO2eq 
  • University of Washington community members interacting with our work can lead to reductions in air travel and more thoughtful choices in regards to additional sustainability behaviors
Total amount requested from the CSF: $14,901
This funding request is a: Grant
If this is a loan, what is the estimated payback period?:


ItemCost per ItemQuantityTotal Cost
Student Support (Summer)$16.39/hour40 hours per week x 12 weeks = 480 hours$7867.20
Student Support (Fall & Winter)$16.39/hour10 hours per week x 20 weeks = 200 hours$3278.00
Student Benefit Load Rate20.9% of salaryn/a$2329.35
PoE Administration Support (PoE does not have a full time administrator and we have learned that administration of CSF grants is not time negligible)$30/hour4 hours per month x 9 months = 36 hours$1080.00
Admin Benefit Load Rate32.1% of salaryn/a$346.68

Non-CSF Sources:

Project Completion Total:


TaskTimeframeEstimated Completion Date
Literature Review40 hoursSummer 2020
Research Design40 hoursSummer 2020
Collect Data from UW Offices80 hoursSummer 2020
Create and Test Survey40 hoursSummer 2020
Administer Survey120 hoursSummer 2020
Calculate Carbon Emissions40 hoursSummer 2020
Assess Pros/Cons of Various Travel or Alternatives80 hoursSummer 2020
Identify Policies & Procedures for Reducing Travel40 hoursSummer 2020
Capestone Report60 hoursFall 2020
Step-by-step Flying Emissions Framework Report40 hoursFall 2020
Digestible Campus Report20 hoursWinter 2021
Poster10 hoursWinter 2021
Infographic10 hoursWinter 2021
PSA Video40 hoursWinter 2021
Meet with Campus Groups and Offices20 hoursWinter 2021

Project Approval Forms: