Fasten your seat belts: the academic conference as we know it is encountering severe turbulence as it flies into a storm sparked by climate change – and it may not survive unscathed.

It’s estimated that aviation accounts for 2% to 3% of global, man-made CO₂ emissions – and people flying to academic conferences are contributing a sizeable chunk of that figure.

As an example, a study of air travel at the University of British Columbia in Canada revealed staff from five departments made 709 air trips over 18 months – resulting in emissions more than 200 times the building emissions for the whole of the geography department. It was reported that later research found “there was no identifiable link between air travel and academic productivity”.

And researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimated that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounted for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint, “equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines”.

Recently it was revealed that universities and colleges in Sweden were the biggest contributors among state-run authorities to carbon emissions from flying. Swedish Radio News reported that more than half of the 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide released by state-run institutions in 2017 came from higher education institutions, with the Karolinska Institute the worst offender. At Lund University, student organisations are demanding a 50 per cent reduction of the institution’s emissions within the next four years.

As one researcher put it: “Academic conferences present a dilemma for climate-conscious researchers and educators. … If we are to be truly ethical in our research practices, we need to confront the high environmental price of the international conference circuit, which includes emissions and the wasteful use of finite resources.”


Travelling to far-flung places

Dr Milena Buchs of Leeds University in the UK writes that many academics see travelling to far-flung places as the perk of the job “to compensate for long hours and performance pressures”.

She adds: “In many ways, structural incentives for air travel have become established within the higher education sector. This means neither university management nor academics will show much appetite for reducing flights. But if it wants to lead by example, the sector – like many others – urgently needs to collaborate globally to agree on reducing its impact from business travel.”

A group of US academics “dismayed by our own climatic impact” have devised a plan (which you can read in full here) to reorganise their institutions in order to limit carbon emissions.

Their advice includes:

  • Experiment with virtual platforms such as Skype, Zoom, Webex, Connect and GoToMeeting “all of which can accommodate the participation of up to 50 people and, with special arrangements, even as many as 250 people
  • Organise regional hub conferencesInstead of a single in-person national or international meeting, a professional association or other organisation could convene at multiple regional sites, linked digitally for major events like keynotes and award ceremonies.
  • Limit overseas conferences. Scholarly organisations should reconsider the practice of holding conferences abroad – unless the topic is explicitly international in scope. Such events are inaccessible as well as carbon intensive.
  • Invite speakers to give talks remotely. To make sure their visits still provide opportunity for conversation, speakers might have a virtual meeting with colleagues and/or graduate students before or after the conference. Their talks could be broadcast to audiences around the world, if the speaker is willing.
  • Envision new ways to build community online.For example, a group of climate scientists has organised a website for academics who are committed to reducing their individual air travel.

“We urge faculty members to work to imagine new ways to collaborate with colleagues on their campuses and come up with other ideas,” they say.

“And we encourage colleges and universities to support and fund innovative conference thinking on the part of their faculty. Many institutions have set ambitious goals for achieving carbon neutrality and should be willing to support experimentation toward this end.”