A carbon code of conduct is not enough

By Hannah Pearson, Chris Baker, Natalie Briscoe, Laura Pollock and Luke Kelly.

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 (13). 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.


1. W. M. J. Achten, J. Almeida, B. Muys, Carbon footprint of science: more than flying. Ecol. Indic. 34, 352–355 (2013).

2. D. Spinellis, P. Louridas, The Carbon Footprint of Conference Papers. PLoS One. 8 (2013).

3. L. Fahrni, Y. Rydin, S. Tunesi, M. Maslin, “Travel related carbon footprint: a case study using the UCL Environment Institute” (London, 2009).

4. B. Favaro, A carbon code of conduct for science. Science (80-. ). 344, 1461 (2014).

5. D. Teodorescu, Correlates of faculty publication productivity: A cross-national analysis. High. Educ. 39, 201–222 (2000).

6. K. Prpic, The publication productivity of young scientists: An empirical study. Scientometrics. 49, 453–490 (2000).

7. iCohere, “Getting it right: five steps to planning a successful 100% online conference” (2013), pp. 0–10.

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12 Responses to A carbon code of conduct is not enough

  1. bfavaro says:

    Hi! I thought it might interest you that I developed the Carbon Code into a full blown book that was just released:


    It extends the idea of the Carbon Code to something that could cover people’s everyday lives, more broadly than just the scientific community.



  2. Pingback: Flying is bad but how can we avoid it? | Hannah Pearson Research

  3. Pingback: Why conferences? | Hannah Pearson Research

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  5. James Van Dyke says:

    Can you explain the calculations used to reach an average of 801 kg? Using the site linked, I calculated that a route from here in Sydney, Australia to attend a recent conference in Chattanooga, TN (with a stop at LAX) produced 5.60 tonnes of CO2. Assuming full flights, the per-passenger amount of CO2 produced, even on such a long flight, is less than 40 kg. Even if the flight is only 1/4 full (a rarity these days), the per-passenger production would still be less than 200 kg. Also, it seems odd that seating class affects the estimate of CO2 production. The same planes would fly the same routes, regardless of seating class.

    If one were to drive the same distance (~28000 km linear distance, round-trip), the single vehicle would produce ~8 tonnes of CO2. That’s at least 400 times more CO2 per person per km, if every passenger had to drive the same distance. Thus, shouldn’t part of the argument here be- if you do attend conferences, fly rather than drive, and fly on the biggest plane with the largest number of passengers possible?

    • You make a very good point there, one that I hadn’t considered. I’ve had to go back to the source paper to review how they actually calculated how much carbon each person presenting at a conference expends. The paper in question was in PLOS ONE in 2013 written by Diomidis Spinellis and Panos Louridas “the carbon footprint of conference papers”.
      They calculated the amount of CO2 produced per conference paper by working out the distance of the shortest possible arc between the conference location and home institute of the researcher. Therefore they didn’t take into account travel to airports or possible stop overs and connecting flights. They also didn’t take into account that each person on a plane is only responsible for a portion of the carbon emissions that it produces (as you point out), an assumption that would have us believe that travelling by bus is worse for the environment than travelling by car. Also, it is certainly a better idea to fly to a conference than it is to drive, but if you are close enough to the conference to drive you could probably get away with taking some form of public transport like a train which would be even less carbon intensive than
      I completely agree that, when we are trying to mitigate how much carbon we use to get to conferences, we should take into account things like flying on planes with the largest possible number of passengers, though (correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t think that the number of passengers on each plane is something that is easy to find out until you’re on it. I suppose you have to trust that the airlines know what they’re doing and have chosen the right sized plane for the number of people flying and just judge by the size of the plane.
      I’ve had a look into why they say your carbon footprint is worse if you are flying business or first class and I agree with you that it is a bit silly. The premise is that the seats in these classes take up more space therefore fewer people can fit in the plane so the carbon footprint per person is increased. However, planes have a specific number of seats that are in these classes and the flight will have them regardless of whether they are or aren’t full. A better argument might be that flying in a plane with business class and first class seats (whether you are in economy or any other class) means you have a higher carbon footprint. So probably we should add ‘flying in a plane with the minimum number of non-economy seas’ to the lists of ways to mitigate our carbon impact.
      I think it’s really important to think through all areas of these arguments so that we can effectively address the main concern which is to reduce the amount of carbon we release into the atmosphere.

      • James Van Dyke says:

        Hi Hanna- thanks for your response. Soon after I posted earlier, I found that I had likely miscalculated. The website you linked actually does appear to account for per-person production of CO2 on planes, and in my example, the 5.6 tonnes produced is reasonable per passenger. I had thought that this number was too high to be real, but apparently the large jumbo jets (747s, A380s) carry over 300,000 liters of jet fuel, which is equivalent to about 370 metric tonnes. Assuming a jet burned all of that fuel on a transpacific flight, or most of it, by the laws of conservation of mass and energy it would produce a similar mass of CO2. So, while 5.6 tonnes is still a bit high, it is in the right ballpark, and a single passenger on one of those trans-pacs is still responsible for about a ton of CO2…

        I had no idea it was so much, so thank you for the stimulating article and thought exercise!

      • Thanks for following that up James,
        I found myself believing you because it seems like an obscene amount of carbon to be using per person. Also it is a lot higher than the amount from the paper we referenced in the original article. I think the difference there (between the estimate that people use 801kg to attend conferences and the 5.6 tonnes that flying to America and back cost) is caused by most people attending conferences a lot closer to home than Australian scientists have to. If you live in Europe of America, the distance you have to travel to get to any of the major conferences is far shorter than the ones we fly. Also, the authors of the paper quoting 801 kg of carbon must have accounted for how much carbon you use as an individual (rather than per plane) though they dont say that in their methods. I cant imagine that their figure could be as small if they calculated the amount of carbon per plane.

        The astronomic amount of carbon required to push a plane through the air over any difference is the reason that we think it’s important to look at alternatives to travelling to conferences. Though we recognize that some travel to conferences is inevitable and in those cases making sure you’re travelling in full planes which are made up primarily of economy seating could make a difference to the amount of carbon wasted.

  6. I really like the idea of the carbon code of conduct: I think it’s got a lot of potential and I think it’s extremely important that researchers are thinking about ways to make their impact on the environment less severe. Having a carbon code of conduct will make people think more about how they are impacting the environment and, therefore encourage them to choose lower carbon options. However, I have three main concerns with the concept of a carbon code of conduct: 1) it is very difficult to judge the carbon-efficiency of certain research activities, 2) it will take a long time to introduce a carbon code of conduct, 3) without institutional support for innovations such as online conferences it will be very difficult to mitigate travel-related carbon expenditure.

    Judging carbon-efficiency
    In animal ethics, proving the worth of the research is often based on human health statistics (e.g. cancer kills x percent of people per year) and pilot or non-animal model studies which demonstrate the potential for the research to improve these statistics. A lot of the activities which would be being moderated by a carbon code of conduct are less easy to quantify. Chief among these is the benefit of attending conferences or travelling to network. The value of the connections made through these activities is highly variable and (as far as I know) cant be predicted before conferences, making it hard to tell whether it will be ‘worth’ the amount of carbon expended.

    Slow institutional uptake
    It seems to me that, in order to ensure that scientists adopt the carbon code of conduct it will need to be made mandatory in research institutions (unfortunately, no one wants to disadvantage their career, relative to other academics, so they are unlikely to adopt the code unless forced). This kind of rule change requires passing an incredible amount of red tape and is likely to meet with resistance from academics (who don’t want to have their activities restricted or spend more time in paper work) and admin staff (who don’t want to spend time monitoring and auditing compliance). So in the best case scenario it will take a long time to implement and even then it will happen in some institutions sooner than others, putting them at a disadvantage.

    How to mitigate carbon offsets change in conference procedures
    Though some carbon impacts such as office electricity usage can be mitigated using existing means (solar panels, energy efficient lights, low energy use computers etc), by far the most carbon is expended by travelling to conferences for which there is currently no viable option. Although (as you point out) it is clearly more carbon efficient to visit labs and take advantages of all social and educational activities while attending conferences, there is still a necessity for attending overseas conferences with some frequency. Without reducing the necessity for this, it will be really hard to reduce the amount of carbon scientists are expending. I think online conferences are the way of the future (they may also be a lot faster to implement than a carbon code of conduct because they are more cost efficient than face-to-face conferences and there are fewer institutional barriers to setting them up) because they can allow scientists to get (at least some of) the benefits of conferences without pumping loads of carbon into the atmosphere.

    I’d love to hear what you think about ways in which we can make it easier to judge what’s carbon efficient and how we can encourage institutions (or individuals) to adopt the carbon code of conduct. I think there is potentially a lot of value in developing a plan for implementing it, as well as increasing the number of online scientific conferences.

  7. wisreader says:

    I think your suggestion that scientists lead by example – and the corresponding suggestion that when they continue to set a poor example in their lack of personal action on carbon emissions they are supporting the status quo – is right on. Those are powerful ideas. If they spread, and are translated into action, I think you will persuade some who most need to be.

    • Thanks for your support wisreader! I’m very glad you agree. I am a very strong proponent of leading by example and feel that this is one of the most important roles of scientists. We believe in the negative impacts of climate change more than any other group of people and if we cant stir ourselves to make changes to mitigate it then how can we expect others to? We need to show other fields how important we think it is so we can convince them to take it seriously too.

  8. bfavaro says:

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going! I agree with your suggestions to improve the uptake of online conferences. This would fit under the Replacement aspect of the carbon code – replacing traditional conferences with online equivalents.

    Not all conferences will be able to go online, and the benefits of having the meeting may outweigh the carbon costs. This is where the carbon code comes in – if you can’t replace your conference attendance with something else, then you must Refine to get the maximum scientific benefit from your carbon usage. That means staying for the whole conference (and using the lowest-carbon option to get there, including favouring direct flights even if they cost a little more), attending pre or post-conference workshops, spending some time with research groups in the area, etc. The code forbids frivolous travel, but it cannot forbid travel entirely.

    The other aspect of the code is that the good behaviours that you’re using in making these very-visible decisions will hopefully spill over outside of the work environment. If every scientist had zero footprint we’d still have climate change – however if every scientist was a responsible user of carbon, then the millions that we could inspire would have a huge cumulative difference.

    Thanks again for the post!


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