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An ethical dilemma for a young (environmental) health researcher: the trade-off between carbon footprint and education/networking

By Adithya Pradyumna
on September 27, 2015

I have been occupied (possessed?) by thoughts related to the planning of my doctoral studies in the broad area of environment and health. One major dilemma is: where should I pursue it? Besides not wanting to spend much time away from my family, I am also concerned about flying (or travelling long distances) – not because it is not enjoyable, but because it is has a huge carbon footprint.

My carbon footprint excluding my out-of-city travel is 2 T/year, which is approximately the recommended average per capita emission for preventing further climate change. With my current travel (work and personal) included it becomes 5 T/year, which will soon come down to 2 T/year when my wife completes her education and we return to our hometown. If I register for a PhD abroad, my footprint will continue to be in the order of 5 T/year for the next 3-4 years. On the other hand, by registering at a local university it could come down to 2 T/year immediately, though potentially compromising the kind of technical input I may get. By the way, my carbon footprint is this low because of a combination of factors – low electricity use (including manual washing of dishes and clothes – a relaxing time and a good workout respectively), exclusive use of public and active transport to office (which includes 25 minutes on the local bus and 25 minutes of walking, each way), eating vegan (only plant based food), and reducing waste (including recycling grey water). I have also consciously cut down air travel (with the aim of phasing it out completely over time).

Five sets of questions occur in my mind:

  • Is it okay to justify a bit more pollution now (to study abroad) by engaging with work aiming at population-level pollution reductions in the future, and thus (probably) be more effective in the future?
  • Can I claim to work on addressing environmental health when my current personal carbon footprint is more than what is sustainable?
  • Can I gain the skills I need for better engagement with these issues at a local university (where they do not have domain expertise in environmental health)? Can I make the difference I am hoping for without drawing upon (what appears to be) the best educational opportunity available to me?
  • Is it likely that my temporary engagement at a developed country (through a university) could further encourage local action towards sustainability there? For instance, I was the sustainability officer at LSHTM when I did my MPH. Did that make any difference?
  • Is it time now for each country (and all universities) to look inwards – to change practices within their own countries to sustainable levels?

I am weighed down by these thoughts and there are no clear answers. But these are important questions, and ones that each health researcher (not just the environmental health researchers) should reflect upon in the new SDG era, especially the new generation – chances are the old ones won’t want to change their ways anymore, even if they should as well. It is fairly easy to rationalise any decision, or find “mitigating circumstances” (family related ones, professional excuses, …) for a higher carbon footprint, and so there is a need for a deeper engagement with them.

While some may be prone to being cynical and ponder whether individual steps will make any difference, I think there surely is a role for us – both from an ethical perspective and a public health practice perspective. I think young health leaders can show the way towards a sustainable and better future. I urge you to start checking and monitoring your carbon footprints!

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