Digital academic conferences to reduce carbon pollution


in Space and flight, The environment, Travel

Since January 2010 I have avoided flying because of the excessive amount of carbon pollution it creates. This has meant avoiding conferences located beyond plausible Greyhound bus range.

It’s heartening to see that some conference organizers are taking into account the climate impact of conferences based on in-person attendance and deploying alternatives:

This is an unusual conference in two respects. First, because it approaches the issue of climate change from the perspective of the humanities, rather than, as might be expected, from that of the sciences. Second, it is also more than a little unusual because of the conference format: it is an international academic conference with over 50 speakers from eight countries, yet it has a nearly nonexistent carbon footprint. Had this been a traditional fly-in conference, our slate of speakers would have had to collectively travel over 300,000 miles, generating the equivalent of over 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the process. This is equal to the total annual carbon footprint of 50 people living in India, 165 in Kenya. A conference that takes up the issue of climate change while simultaneously contributing to the problem to such a degree would be simply unconscionable.

In contrast, we took a digital approach… As with any academic conference, our goal is to help establish relationships and to build a community. In this case, since travel has been removed from the picture, we hope this community will be both diverse and global.

No doubt, a digital conference loses some of the advantages of in-person attendance in terms of building relationships. It probably has advantages, however, in terms of avoiding lost productivity due to travel time. As the world becomes more serious about controlling climate change, we are going to have to target travel-intensive events like conferences and weddings and think about how we can avoid the damage they cause.

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