Sustainable Development Professionals: Does Your Flight Render Your Efforts Futile?

August 8, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedShort trips (i.e. less than about one month) made by international humanitarian engineering and sustainable community development professionals for fieldwork, particularly to far-flung destinations, are almost certainly futile from an environmental sustainability perspective.

Those of us in the international humanitarian engineering and sustainable community development (IHE/SCD) sector are professionally concerned with environmental sustainability. We relentlessly flog the rhetoric of “sustainability” for grant seeking and fundraising, in outreach and promotional activities, and in our organizational and institutional self-assessments.
However, most of us, myself included, do a lot of long-haul air travel for fieldwork, incurring substantial CO2 emissions. What if the good we do advancing sustainability through our fieldwork and professional activities gets negated by the CO2 we emit getting there and back again?
In order to quantify net sustainability for a given IHE/SCD field project, colleagues and I have developed the Break Even Ecological Footprint concept. The Ecological Footprint [] is a resource accounting tool that provides a mathematically commensurable quantitative metric of sustainability by comparing humanity’s demands for energy, resources, and waste assimilation with the planet’s biological capacity to meet these demands.
Many readers are probably familiar with the Ecological Footprint. For those who aren’t, according to Ecological Footprint analysis (2010 National Footprint Accounts), worldwide there are 1.8 global hectares (GHA) of bio-capacity available per capita. The Ecological Footprint of the average US citizen is 8.0 GHA; thus if everyone on earth consumed at the rate of the average American we would need nearly four-and-one-half planets. The Ecological Footprint of most people in the developing world is much smaller than the averages for North American and Western European countries. For example, the average Thai Footprint is 2.4 GHA, the average Ugandan and Peruvian is 1.5 GHA, and the average Haitian is 0.7 GHA.
“BEEF” Concept for International Humanitarian Engineering and Sustainable Community Development Fieldwork Evaluation
The Break Even Ecological Footprint (BEEF) concept provides a quantitative answer (in units of time, e.g. months) to the question of how long a Western IHE/SCD professional would have to live at a local, developing community Ecological Footprint level in order to offset the CO2 they emitted by air travel to the field. In other words, the BEEF is the minimum amount of time one would have to remain in-country/community in order to begin to accrue a net sustainability benefit. Any trip shorter than the BEEF would be futile from a sustainability perspective as the environmental costs of getting there would outweigh the sustainability benefits of living at a lower Ecological Footprint level relative to the US (or other affluent home country) lifestyle.
The BEEF concept was inspired by an article from climate scientist Kevin Anderson published on arguing that climate scientists and others who are professionally concerned with sustainability are often a bunch of hypocrites for engaging in so much air travel for conferences, fieldwork, etc., and ought instead to go by train and/or travel less in order to lead by example.
BEEF Calculation Methodology
As a North America-based example let’s consider Denver, Colorado, USA as the trip origin, since Denver is located roughly in the middle of the continent, and because the metro area is home to well-known IHE/SCD organizations such as Water for People, Engineers Without Borders-USA, and similarly oriented programs within the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Based on my own fieldwork located in Thailand along the Burma border, I’ll take the case of flying to Bangkok, Thailand from Denver and use CarbonFund’s air travel CO2 emissions calculator. This trip of nearly 17,000 miles results in 3.12-8.42 tonnes of CO2 emitted. The higher value includes a multiplier for radiative forcing (RF), reflecting the fact that emissions at high elevations have a proportionally greater impact than at ground level.
The Ecological Footprint calculations that follow use the National Footprint Accounts, 2010 Edition, the most recent dataset made free and publicly available.
Using a conversion factor of 0.32 GHA/tonne CO2 gives an Ecological Footprint (EF) of 1.0-2.7 GHA. This conversion factor is derived by dividing humanity’s global CO2 Footprint (9,634 million GHA) by humanity’s global annual CO2 emissions (30 gigatonnes).
The average US EF/capita is 8.0 GHA, and the average Thai EF is 2.4 GHA, a difference of 5.6 GHA.
When I am in Thailand I do live with a lower EF relative to my life in the US, but surely not as low as the average Thai person, let alone refugee from Burma, who is much less affluent than I am. Consider also that, in general, development workers in the field often live at quasi-US material standards: e.g., living in gated communities and in large houses with air conditioning, driving around in SUVs, consuming expensive imported products and Western "comfort foods," etc.
Accordingly it is probably inappropriate to credit a Western IHE/SCD professional with a completely local EF. In the poorest countries, for example in Africa, the average EF per capita is less than 1.0 GHA. The Congo is 0.8 GHA, only 1/10th the average US EF. It is unrealistic to expect that a highly accredited and handsomely salaried development professional would choose or could withstand to live at this level of austerity and relative deprivation.
We therefore posit two scenarios, termed "LL," for "Living like a Local," and "LSL," for "Living Semi-Local." LL assumes an EF equal to the destination country’s average, and LSL assumes an EF halfway between that country’s and the US’s.
Image Removed
To calculate BEEFLL and BEEFLSL with or without radiative forcing, simply input the corresponding carbon emissions into the above equations.
My BEEF results for Thailand are:
Country, (EF)
Without RF (months)
With RF (months)
Thailand (2.4 GHA/cap), LL
Thailand, LSL
Thus, neglecting radiative forcing, if I can manage to live very much like a local while doing fieldwork, then I need to stay in Thailand for a little over two months in order to start accruing a net environmental sustainability benefit.
However, if radiative forcing is an issue, and if I engage in a somewhat more indulgent lifestyle, then I would need to stay for nearly a year to surpass the Break Even Footprint.
As further illustration, here are BEEF calculations for Uganda, Peru (Arequipa), and Haiti:
Country (EF)
Without RF (months)
With RF (months)
Uganda (1.5 GHA/cap), LL
Uganda, LSL
Peru (Arequipa) (1.5 GHA/cap), LL
Peru, LSL
Haiti (0.7 GHA/cap), LL
Haiti, LSL
Using this methodology, we have built a simple and convenient online BEEF calculator. We encourage all IHE/SCD professional workers planning to go abroad for fieldwork to use this calculator to assess their trips for potential futility from an environmental sustainability perspective.
Implications, Limitations, and Further Development
The astute reader will be quick to point out that a prolific number of websites provide purchasable “offsets” for one’s CO2 emissions. A thorough treatment of the various carbon offset schemes is, however, beyond the scope of this article. As has been well-argued elsewhere (Spash 2010, Monbiot 2006), real-world sustainability gains from purchased CO2 offsets are dubious. (Their efficacy for eco-guilt assuagement, however, is perhaps better established.)
One limitation of BEEF analysis derives from an inherent limitation in Ecological Footprint analysis itself. EF calculations are based on national data that are highly aggregated and averaged. Therefore, at the level of the individual, modification of one’s personal EF is difficult because it’s strongly weighted by the average EF and consumption patterns of the home nation. The main drivers, overall, are the economic system, government policies, population, and infrastructure – not things that an individual can have much influence over, certainly not through their lifestyle choices.
As an aside, this highlights that what is required for enabling low EF lifestyles is certain infrastructure, social support systems (e.g. cheap and available health care), and the right kinds of community and economic networks developing as a bio-regional patchwork and aggregating to the national level. When those macro-systems are in place, it’s much easier and for many more people to attain a low EF, yet satisfying, lifestyle. For further consideration, see this cross-referencing analysis of Ecological Footprint and United Nations Human Development Index datasets
A more obvious limitation of the BEEF is that it only quantifies impact from the IHE/SCD worker’s air travel and lifestyle in-country relative to the average lifestyle in the US (or other affluent home country). Currently there is no way to impute a mathematically commensurable quantity (i.e., in units of GHA) for the Footprint impact of the IHE/SCD worker’s project(s) in-country. In our professional sector, there is a proliferation of tools, metrics, indices – and accompanying heated debates about their relative merits – for project monitoring, assessment, and evaluation (though, nothing regarding the impact of the development worker him/her-self at home and abroad.) It would be difficult or impossible, and certainly very subjective, to try to impute such metrics into Ecological Footprint analysis. So we have restricted the BEEF to what can be more readily quantified and made commensurate with EF calculations. The BEEF is thus not meant to provide an overall project assessment, but one assessment tool that is placed alongside other metrics of project sustainability developed and debated by the sector.
Another obvious implication is that relative sustainability gains could be achieved simply by the IHE/SCD worker relocating to a low-EF country and living there as a local (i.e., without even undertaking any explicit profession-specific “sustainable development” activities). True. This is simply a corollary of the truism that living a lower EF lifestyle within the US or other affluent country incurs sustainability gains. This should provide “food for thought” to IHE/SCD professionals as to how they might achieve the greatest sustainability gains over their lifetimes – it may, in fact, not be through professional activities, but rather through their own direct, local activism aimed to enable resilience for themselves and their communities.
Furthermore, we can imagine some types of (albeit difficult to quantify) intentional “BEEF Modifiers.” For example, if IHE/SCD professionals’ activities abroad make demonstrable, lasting sustainability gains for individuals and communities extending beyond the lives of the professional themselves, this could earn a BEEF Bonus (reduction in Break Even timeframe).
Likewise, a BEEF Bonus would need to appear for any IHE/SCD professionals who achieve demonstrable sustainability gains in their lives and the lives of others influenced by them in their affluent home countries. Otherwise, BEEF analysis would have the paradoxical effect of extending Break Even time abroad as their home-country-lifestyle EF would decrease relative to the average for that country. (This might constitute a greater drawback of the BEEF methodology, were it not that most professional IHE/SCD workers are quite affluent and effete, and tend to live cosmopolitan, EF-intensive lifestyles.)
Also, and somewhat humorously, we propose a stiff BEEF Penalty for any stopovers in Dubai en route to field sites. The UAE has an EF of 10.7 GHA/cap, even greater than the US. Since world bio-capacity is only 1.8 GHA/cap, if the whole world lived like Dubai we’d need six planets!
Lastly, and most importantly, the implications of BEEF analysis make clear that short trips (i.e. less than about one month) made by IHE/SCD professionals for fieldwork, particularly to far-flung destinations, are almost certainly futile from an environmental sustainability perspective.
If “sustainability” truly is among our most cherished values as professionals and not just a buzzword constantly trumpeted to expedite project funding and social ingratiation, then we must put our professional activities and contemporary lifestyles to rigorous (re-)evaluation, though the implications of doing so may be discomfiting.
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Here we have oriented our exposition of the BEEF concept explicitly towards the IHE/SCD sector in effort to drive a particular conversation regarding more holistic and self-reflexive means for evaluating project sustainability, and a reassessment of the sector’s definition of and objectives for "development." To a certain degree, the BEEF is really about the same moral argument that Kevin Anderson has made, paraphrased: "Professionals in the ‘development’ and ‘sustainability’ sectors, stop assuming that you are VIPs and thus all of your air travel is justified. Maybe it isn’t, and maybe you ought to think about leading by example."
We invite readers to explore how BEEF analysis might be applicable in other sectors of sustainability science, “green” development, and environmental activism. 
Boeing 777 image via Alex Beltyukov/Wikimedia Commons


Josh Kearns


Josh is a PhD candidate in environmental engineering at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a visiting researcher at North Carolina State University. His research explores the applicability of locally produced biomass char (biochar) as a low-cost adsorbent for drinking water treatment in developing communities. Josh has worked in the fields of ecological economics and sustainability science and he founded Aqueous Solutions, a non-profit organization that researches and deploys appropriate technologies in water and sanitation.


Tags: aviation, BEEF, climate change, Culture & Behavior, Ecological Footprint