Conference travel has a large carbon footprint, and with 12 years left until we may reach the limit of 1.5oC global warming, the clock is ticking, and every decision counts – so what can we do?


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Traveling to conferences is expensive.

For some conferences, the registration fee can be as high as 1000 USD – and then there’s still airfare to pay, a place to stay that you need to book, and a bit of budget to get around the city where you’re staying and to eat something.

For some academics nowadays, the cost is so high that they can’t attend.

And that’s just the economic cost of a conference.

Have you ever thought for a moment about the environmental cost of a conference?

When I analysed my consumption patterns some time ago to evaluate my carbon footprint, I had a feeling that I could pat myself on the shoulder:

  • I walk my commute
  • I eat a plant-based diet
  • My daughter is in cloth diapers… I consider myself eco-friendly.

And then I saw the impact of attending conferences.

One transatlantic trip easily costs me 2 tons of CO2 – already 1/10th of the CO2 emissions of a US citizen.

I’ve had years with 7 conferences, and since I am dividing my time between South America and Europe, my airline miles quickly add up.

I’m not the only one who has been running the numbers.

Sam Desiere calculated the carbon footprint of the 14th EAAE congress in Slovenia.

Michael Hicks calculated the carbon footprint of travel to PLDI’16.

Ken Hiltern learned that 1/3rd of the carbon footprint of his university came from the air travel of faculty for conferences and talks.

Nathan Hemmer points out the absurdity of traveling thousands of miles and creating an enormous collective carbon footprint to talk about how we are going to reduce our carbon footprint.

The conclusion is clear: conference travel has a large carbon footprint. And with 12 years left until we may reach the limit of 1.5oC global warming, the clock is ticking, and every decision counts.

So what can we do?

#1 Go digital

Replace in-person conferences with digital conferences.

A successful example is the digital conference “Climate change: views from the humanities”.

If you can avoid the travel for an in-person conference or meeting, go digital instead.

#2 Combine conferences

Michael Hicks proposes to co-locate conferences that have a similar agenda and attendees to reduce the travel associated with these.

#3 Meet at a central location

Minimize the carbon footprint associated with air travel of the participants by finding a central location.

This requires a change in mindset: no longer should we select conferences based on “whose turn” it is, or based on the most attractive place from a touristic perspective, but instead based on minimizing environmental costs.

#4 Travel by train or sea

Even though it takes more time, travel by train or sea should be encouraged over travel by air.   

#5 Buy carbon offsets

Buying carbon offsets without changing our behaviors is not what I advocate for, but if you need to travel, buying a carbon offset is something to consider.

You can find a number of ideas for offsets on carbonfootprint.com.

#6 Install a carbon tax

Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash propose a two-tier approach.

The first step would be to require transparency from faculty regarding the carbon footprint related with conference attendance.

The second step includes an internal carbon tax 

#7 Fly economy instead of business class

The carbon footprint associated with business class travel is 3 times larger than economy.

Are you ready to reduce your carbon footprint from conference attendance?

What are you doing – traveling less, buying offsets…?

Let us know in the comments below.


Dr Lantsoght blogs at PhD Talk.

You can also follow her on Twitter @evalantsoght


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