A new study calls for researchers to be more aware of their own CO2 emissions when going to conferences — and if possible, avoid flying.
Conferences are some of the best parts about being a scientist. You travel to a different place, meet plenty of like-minded people, present your results and see the results of others. Add a few drinks at the end of the day and you have a recipe for an excellent event. But all this comes at a cost — I’m not talking about delaying your research or grading your papers — it comes at an environmental cost.
Dr. Sebastian Jäckle from the Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg believes scientists should be more eco-conscious. According to his calculations, conference attendees are responsible for substantial CO2 emissions. He analyzed the emissions associated with the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) conferences over the past six years.
The results show that on average, attendees produce between 0.5 and 1.5 tons of CO2 equivalents per three-day ECPR meeting. As a reference, the German average is about 11 tons of CO2 equivalents per year per capita. The average for the US is 20 tons, and the global average is around 4 tons.
In other words, traveling to conferences can make up a significant part of our yearly emissions — around 10%, if you’re from Europe.
The vast majority of this comes from the travel itself — specifically, planes. Planes are fast and convenient, but they’re also huge emitters. If we want more sustainable conferences (and this can be extended to all international meetings, not just science events), we need to start considering alternatives.
“If researchers would then accept somewhat longer travel times by bus or train compared to air travel, up to 85 percent of a conference’s emissions could be saved,” says Jäckle. “Such savings are only possible, however, if both the professional associations hosting the conferences and individual researchers are aware of the problem and actively strive to make the conference as climate-neutral as possible.”
Of course, in some instances, substituting a plane with trains, for instance, is just not possible, or completely impractical. This is where conference organizers need to step up and carry out some better planning. Predicting where most of the visitors would come from and organizing conferences in places that are well-connected, with good train times, is a must for sustainable conferences. Offering low-CO2 travel grants is also an option worth considering. It won’t be easy and will definitely not be perfect at first, but if we want to truly reduce our impact, taking fewer flights is one of the most effective things we can do.
Lastly, setting an example is also important — as Jäckle himself acknowledges. To this purpose, he traveled by bicycle from Freiburg to the ECPR conference in Wroclaw, in true eco-friendly fashion.
Journal Reference: Sebastian Jäckle, WE have to change! The carbon footprint of ECPR general conferences and ways to reduce it, European Political Science (2019). DOI: 10.1057/s41304-019-00220-6