During the pandemic year of lockdown, most things simply stopped — especially conferences. Large gatherings of people that require traveling are the last thing you can want during a pandemic, so they pretty much stopped. Turns out, that decision had a pretty big impact — the carbon footprint of the global event and convention industry is comparable to the entire emissions of the US. A team of Cornell researchers now says we should learn from that and use video calls and remote conferences when possible, to reduce emissions.
Since the pandemic started, we’ve all had to cut down on some of the things we’d normally do. For millions of people around the world, this meant giving up on conferences or other events that they would have normally attended. Believe it or not, the number of regular, international events of over 50 participants doubles every 10 years, and this growth comes with a big price tag associated — not just financially, but also in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
“We all go to conferences. We fly, we drive, we check into a hotel, give a talk, meet people – and we’re done,” said senior author Fengqi You, a senior faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability.
“But we looked at this problem comprehensively and behind the scenes, conventions generate a lot of carbon, consume a lot of energy, print a lot of paper, offer a lot of food – not to mention create municipal solid waste. Yet, video conferencing also requires energy and equipment use. Conference planning means a lot to consider.”
Researchers carried out a complete assessment on the emissions associated with the event industry, and found that the carbon footprint per average participant reaches 3 tons (6,600 pounds) of carbon dioxide equivalent. For comparison, production of a beef burger emits 60 kilograms of CO2, and a return flight from London to Rome is just under 240 kilograms of CO2. In light of this, researchers say we should try implementing a hybrid system of conferences, with both in-person and online meetings.
“There is a lot of interest and attention on climate change, so moving from in-person conferences to hybrid or remote events would be beneficial,” You said. “But we should also be cautious and optimize decisions in terms of selecting hubs and determining participant levels for hybrid meetings.”
Of course, for some events, doing this online versus in person is just not as efficient. With this in mind, researchers also suggest a few ways to reduce the impact of in-person events. For instance, you should focus on conferences closer to home, and avoid stopovers when booking flights, switching to more plant-based dietary options, and selecting conference hubs that are energy-efficient.
Transitioning from in-person to virtual conferencing can substantially reduce the carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%, while a hybrid system with 50% in-person participation can still slash emissions by around two-thirds, researchers say.
The study was published in Nature Communications.