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We Have to Stop Meeting Like This: The Climate Cost of Conferences

A UBC study looked at the carbon cost of conferences and other academic travel. It’s enormous.

By Malabika Pramanik 22 Jul 2019 |

Malabika Pramanik is a 2018 Wall Scholar and professor in mathematics at the University of British Columbia. She is working with fellow scholars Jessica Dempsey (Geography) and Sara Milstein (Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies) to engage the broader academic community, within and outside UBC, on conversations surrounding academic aviation emissions.

Conferences have been a lot on my mind lately. I am at one of them as I write this.

As a member of the Canadian Mathematical Society and a conference organizer, I am always looking for ways to attract both eminent mathematicians and early-career researchers, preferably from as many different corners of the globe as budgetary constraints will allow.

As a mathematics professor at the University of British Columbia, I understand the importance of sending students to events with networking opportunities, where they can learn, showcase their own work and meet prospective employers and collaborators.

You can imagine my incredulity, followed by sinking dismay, as I sat at a seminar recently listening to a presentation facilitated by fellow Peter Wall Institute Scholar Jessica Dempsey from UBC’s geography department.

Seth Wynes and Simon Donner, also from UBC’s geography department, laid out their findings from a recent study titled “Addressing greenhouse gas emissions from business-related air travel at public institutions: A case study of the University of British Columbia,” published by the Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions.

To say that I was stunned — even horrified — would be an understatement. Climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and eco-friendly initiatives are a common point of discourse these days. I thought I had done my tiny bit by cutting down on plastic, sorting the garbage, composting religiously, turning off switches before leaving the house and supporting the carbon tax.

Guilt had been confined mainly to driving my car. Aware as I was of mathematicians engaged in exploring the consequences of climate change, I had never imagined that my own research activities could have any bearing on the future of the planet.

Yet, the findings are sobering and unequivocal. Air travel emissions resulting from professional travel, predominantly to conferences, are significant.

Wynes and Donner estimate that business-related air travel emissions at UBC total 26,333 to 31,685 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission each year, equivalent to 63 to 73 per cent of the total annual emissions from the operation of the Vancouver UBC campus.

The research looked at emissions by department. The psychology department, for example, had emissions from business-related air travel that were similar to the emissions from heating and powering its building for a year.

In the case of the geography department, which recently switched to a more efficient heating system, the business-related air travel emissions were 30 times greater than emissions from the building.

For the entire university, annual business-related air travel emissions are 1.3 to 1.6 times greater than the total UBC emissions target for the year 2020.

Put another way, the emissions per UBC traveller in this study are equivalent to 10 to 13 per cent of the greenhouse gas footprint of the average Canadian — and 16 to 21 per cent the emissions of the average B.C. resident.

This means that the average person in this sample produced, simply through air travel, at least 16 per cent of the emissions that someone in B.C. creates in their entire annual footprint, including flying, home heating and driving a car.

The study, which analyses business-related air travel emissions using data from 4,804 UBC travellers, found that the average emissions of a professor are three times higher than the average graduate student.

UBC trips are short (median length of five nights), and the most common purpose of trips was for conferences and meetings.

Simple mitigation measures, including eliminating higher class travel (which shrinks the number of passengers per flight) and cutting brief, long-haul trips, could have reduced emissions by 11.7 per cent while also saving money.

The presentation focused only on UBC. But the problem most definitely is not organization-specific. Curiosity led me to probe a bit more into the environmental impact of large-scale conferences. 

Unsurprisingly, evidence was everywhere, once I knew what to look for. In an article titled “Sustainable Science?” published in Ethnobiology Letters, authors Alexandra Ponette-González and Jarrett Byrnes found that travel to a single meeting can generate about 11,000 tonnes of CO2.

Ponette-González and Byrnes notes these numbers are at odds with the values of scientists who are concerned about climate change. Like Wynes and Donner, they also talk about the necessity of a cultural shift within academia.

What would such a cultural shift look like? Right now, virtual meetings and large-scale web conferences seem unworkable substitutes for in-person interactions. Especially with the inevitable technical glitches, the lack of interactivity, audio lag, poor video quality and dropped connections. 

While the aviation industry races to replace fossil fuels and explores green alternatives such as battery-powered flights, do we sit back and wait for technological innovation to catch up with our expectations?

Or should conference organizers initiate cultural shifts that are within reach, like emphasizing regional participation, while using venues with enhanced information and communication technology for remote collaboration?

But the real issues go deeper. Even assuming that technology breakthroughs for virtual meetings are around the corner, how does one balance the demands for an ethical approach to climate change with the reality that promotion and tenure can depend on part in number of invitations to speak at international conferences?

Additionally, any academic institute or organization that unilaterally aims to incorporate progressive environmental policies into its broader infrastructure risks being at a competitive disadvantage in the current academic environment, at least in the early stages.

Socially conscious academic organizations, such as the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies in Sweden and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the U.K. have already stepped up to the plate with strategies to reduce travel emissions.

But these remain tiny drops in a giant bucket. There is pressing need for larger deliberation within the academic community that could lead to global academic policy changes.

Our lives are complex, for the most part a tightrope walk of balancing priorities. Our planet, which supports these lives, is more complex still. Taking actions that benefit the planet often seem to conflict with our personal agendas.

Yet the end goal is clear; the planet must thrive, so that we can. The way to change seems partly obscure at the moment. But change we must.  [Tyee]

Read more: Travel, Environment

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