Despite our best efforts, scientists haven’t succeeded in persuading the world’s governments that reducing carbon emissions is vital for maintaining a liveable climate on earth. This might be because we damage our credibility by creating more carbon emissions than average citizens (1–3). This isn’t exactly the best way to show how much we value reducing carbon emissions and minimising climate change. Favaro (2014) highlighted this issue and proposed a way of reducing scientists’ carbon emissions by going through a carbon-ethics application procedure before undertaking research-related activities. This idea is based around the principles underpinning animal research which require you to minimise and justify the suffering of animal subjects (4).
Favaro’s (2014) recommendation that scientists reduce carbon emissions in all areas of their research is admirable. However, we believe that focussing on the main source of carbon emissions would be more efficient. The majority of scientists’ carbon emissions are produced by travelling to conferences (1, 2). The average conference attendee expends 801kg of carbon in transit (2) (southern hemisphere scientists vastly exceed this average as they have to travel far greater distances to reach conferences). Therefore a conference such as the Ecological Society of America (ESA) Annual Meeting, which is attended by in excess of 7000 scientists generates the more CO2 than a Hummer driving around the world 350 times. This is compounded by many scientists traveling to several international conferences per year, drastically increasing their personal carbon emissions.
It is not surprising that scientists keep traveling to conferences despite the environmental cost. Attending conferences improves productivity (5, 6), scientific networks, and grant applications. These advantages must be maintained to avoid crippling the career advancement of researchers. But we think that there are low emission alternatives which could still provide these benefits. We advocate using advances in web technology to replace (some or all) traditional conferences with online conferences.
Some aspects of conferences could be difficult to replicate online, but online conferences have many benefits including greater scope for personalised programs and more in-depth discussions using online forums and social media (7). These tools encourage greater dialogue between researchers at all career stages.
Bearing in mind that online conferences are relatively untested and may not fully provide the benefits achieved at traditional conferences, we propose that some traditional conferences are retained, at least to begin with. However, it is important that the carbon cost of these conferences is justified by the benefits gained. Despite the potential for convenient networking at traditional (face-to-face) conferences, it is often difficult to identify, locate and approach the people who would be most beneficial. We feel that the carbon-efficiency of conferences could be improved by using social networking apps like SocialRadar and those developed for conferences such as ESA alongside ‘speed networking’ events and social media.
An increase in online conferences, paired with fewer, more effective traditional conferences, could allow the benefits of attending conferences to be maintained while reducing scientists’ carbon footprint. Maybe this will improve our credibility and make our calls for reductions in carbon emissions more compelling? Maybe it won’t? Either way, we will be doing our best to minimise our impact on the world’s climate.
Favaro’s (2014) recommendations have great potential. But their implementation is likely to be slow. As early career researchers, we believe that broader institutional change, such as the increased use of online conferences, is required to effectively reduce scientists’ carbon emissions, while minimising the impact on the career advancement of individual researchers.
If you want to get an idea of how much carbon you’re releasing by travelling to conferences you can visit this site.
3. L. Fahrni, Y. Rydin, S. Tunesi, M. Maslin, “Travel related carbon footprint: a case study using the UCL Environment Institute” (London, 2009).