Conferences and their Environmental Impacts

Audience listens to the lecturer at a conference

International science and business conferences often involve flying large numbers of people across the world, but what about the solution of online only or hybrid online/in-person events? Last week I attended a sustainable research conference that was offered as a hybrid, with physical presence as well as online offered. A great idea at first sight.

A hybrid conference is not as organizationally simple as one might think as they are technically complex. Fully online conferences are easier to organize, but they run into time-zone problems, and the hybrid solution risks building a two-tear scientific community: those who travel, network and socialize in person, and those who attend from their own homes or offices.

This may have implications, as those attending in person benefit from knowledge exchange and networking to a greater extent, which may be not only advantageous for their scientific development but also for their careers.

On the other hand, those travelling for work (through no choice of their own) may feel that they should not be, which could bring personal and psychological problems.

As part of ongoing research into the environmental consequences of conference-going, last week’s attendees were all asked to complete a questionnaire so that the environmental implications of their in-person attendance could be measured. Questions addressed how they had travelled, were they staying overnight and which food choices they had made, all of which can be used to generate data.

And here lies the difficult question.

I learned a lot from attending, I grew my network and I enjoyed myself. I left rejuvenated! If I had the choice, I would not give up on attending conferences, because I believe that at the end of the day there is more to gain from attending in person than from following online, even at such a well-organized and participatory event that even included desk yoga.

Learning Includes the fact that attending led me to interrogate myself and my own actions and choices when presented the possibility of presenting or attending a conference either online or in person, and discuss these contradictory feelings with others who face the same conundrum, in a relaxed social setting.

But how much gain is there from personal attendance in relation to the environmental impact. Flying is unavoidable for many, but we all know that CO2 emissions are enormous from such trips.

In my experience conferences have often been the starting points for projects and even books. It is very difficult to imagine how calculations could be made that took gain (or possible gain) into account in relation to pollution though. What is the value of publishing a book or participating in a project?

The EU stopped funding travel during COVID, so we were all in some way forced to attend conferences virtually. But now that conferences are once again appearing in person, how can we make decisions about whether to attend or not?

4 thoughts on “Conferences and their Environmental Impacts

  1. Christopher Roberts

    In the organisation where I work, most people have been working from home (full-time) since the COVID pandemic started.

    There are quarterly planning events, which used to be virtual with optional in-person attendance, but are now mandatory to unless you have a reason not to be there in person.

    The organisation takes the view that we all used to come into an office before COVID, so why wouldn’t we do the same now? While I don’t disagree it’s good to get together in person every 3 months, there are definitely costs (which are now more obvious than before) and the “because that’s the what we’ve always done” reason isn’t enough anymore.

    It’d be interesting to see the true environmental and mental health impacts of the planning events.

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