Prior to the global pandemic, climate researchers identified an uncomfortable truth: the very meetings and events meant to support the fight against climate change were themselves causing vast greenhouse gas emissions through international air travel.
Building on learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have identified new measures, published this week in the journal Nature, that may reduce the carbon footprint of conference travel by up to 90%.
"Our analysis examines the potential emissions savings of doing things differently," explains Milan Klöwer, study author and climate researcher at the University of Oxford. "We found three key areas for action. First, select venues to minimize transport emissions. This can be done by modelling delegates' journeys in advance. Second, increase virtual attendance, which can also serve to increase accessibility. Third, go biennial."
To overcome some of the challenges associated with purely virtual events, the study also proposes a new 'three hub' model where multiple conferences take place simultaneously in different locations, enabling attendees to travel to their nearest hub but participate virtually across locations. The team estimates this could reduce combined travel emissions by 80%.
In response to COVID-19, conferences have largely moved online, showing that it is possible to change seemingly intractable practices with remarkable speed. However, the move to online conferences will not continue as the new normal by default, caution researchers.
"Our analysis found that the sum total of travel associated with attendance at one large academic conference can release as much CO2 as an entire city in a week," said Debbie Hopkins, study author and associate professor at Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment.
"For just one conference 28,000 delegates travelled 285 million kilometres - almost twice the distance between Earth and the Sun," added Myles Allen, leader of the Climate Research Programme at the Oxford's Environmental Change Institute.
"To reach net zero global emissions we need everyone, from funding bodies to academic institutions, to relegate this kind of excess to the past."
The study also found that intercontinental flights generally account for much greater emissions than short- or medium-haul flights - meaning that promoting alternative regional modes of transport may not make much difference to overall carbon footprint. However, the researchers stressed the need to avoid excluding scientist based further away, and the need to improve inclusion for researchers from underrepresented regions including the Global South.
"There are clear inequalities in who travels by air and therefore who attends conferences," says James Higham, study author and Professor of Sustainable Tourism at the University of Otago. "Virtual participation is a big step towards a fairer conference model as well as a net-zero carbon future."