On the Environmental Impact of Academic Conferences

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by Malabika Pramanik

Conferences have been a lot on my mind lately. I am at one of them as I write this. Just a few minutes ago, I heard a presentation on a problem close to my heart. Yesterday, we participated in a vibrant problem session where ideas flew thick and fast, vigorous discussions ensued, and everyone came away with that sense of satisfaction that only a fruitful meeting of minds can impart. 

As a Canadian Mathematical Society (CMS) member, I often engage in conversations on how to improve the CMS meeting experience, enhance its global visibility, and connect to a wide array of the mathematical community. As a conference organizer, I am always looking for ways to attract both eminent mathematicians and early-career researchers, preferably from as many different corners of the globe as budgetary constraints will allow.

As an advisor, I understand the importance of sending students to events with networking opportunities, where they can learn new mathematics, showcase their own work, and meet prospective employers and collaborators.

You can imagine my incredulity, followed by sinking dismay, as I sat at a seminar last week, listening to a presentation facilitated by fellow Wall Scholar Jessica Dempsey (Geography, UBC).

During the seminar, Seth Wynes and Simon Donner (Geography, UBC) laid out their findings and conclusions from a recent study titled Addressing greenhouse gas emissions from business-related air travel at public institutions: a case study of the University of British Columbia, published in the Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions (July 2018). Their study included two analyses of business-related air travel emissions:

  • one based on bottom-up data from eight units on campus (997 travelers) and
  • another based on data collected by a central travel office via an online booking tool (3807 travelers).

Other highlights included a survey of UBC faculty attitudes about business-related air travel, and an assessment of mitigation options involving investment in Information and Communications Technology (ICT).

To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. Climate change, greenhouse emissions, and eco-friendly initiatives are of course a common point of discourse on all media platforms these days. I thought I had done my tiny bit by cutting down on plastic, sorting out the garbage, composting religiously, turning off switches before leaving the house, and supporting the carbon tax.

Guilt had been confined to driving my car. Aware as I was of mathematicians engaged in exploring the consequences of climate change through sophisticated modelling methodology, I had never imagined that my own research activities could have any bearing on the future of the planet.
 


 

Yet, the findings are sobering and unequivocal. Air travel emissions resulting from professional travel, predominantly to conferences, are significant in relation to other institutional emissions.

Wynes and Donner estimate that business-related air travel emissions at UBC total 26,333 to 31,685 tons of CO2e each year, equivalent to 63 to 73 percent of the total annual emissions from the operation of the Vancouver UBC campus. At a unit-by-unit level, emissions from business-related air travel in the Department of Psychology were similar to that from heating and providing electricity to the building housing the department. 

In the case of the Department of Geography, which recently switched to a more efficient heating system, the business-related air travel emissions were 30 times that of the building. I could not get the stats for the Department of Mathematics.

According to Wynes and Donner, “this report indicates that business-related air travel represents a substantial, unaddressed emissions burden.” 

The emissions per UBC traveler in this study are equivalent to 10 to 13 percent of the greenhouse gas footprint of the average Canadian and 16 to 21 percent that of the average BC resident. When extrapolated to the entire institution, annual business-related air travel emissions are 1.3 to 1.6 times greater than the UBC emissions target for the year 2020.

What do these numbers mean exactly? Off-hand, 10 to 13 percent of the average Canadian’s greenhouse gas footprint does not sound so bad.

Wynes explains that people in BC have much smaller carbon footprints (our household energy comes from hydro instead of coal); hence the same value would occupy a larger fraction of an individual’s emissions in BC, about 16 percent. That means that the average person in this sample produced, simply through air travel, 16 percent of the emissions that someone in BC creates in their entire annual footprint (flying, home heating, driving a car). 

According to Wynes, the important message here is that the average emissions of a professor who took at least one flight in their sample are three times higher than the average graduate student who also took at least one trip.  “The average professor (not associate or assistant, but fully tenured) had emissions of 7.52 tons of CO2e, compared to 2.44 for graduate students.”
 


 

Wynes and Donner’s report goes on to say that many trips by air are potentially replaceable. Most trips taking place at UBC are short (median length of five nights) and the most common purpose of trips was for conferences and meetings. 

Simple mitigation measures, including eliminating higher class travel, and brief, long haul trips, could have reduced emissions by 11.7 percent while also saving money. But efforts to address the remainder of business-related air travel emissions will require changes to current professional norms (e.g., in-person attendance at international conferences) as well as the quality and awareness of alternative technological options. 

While emerging technology may not be able to fully replicate the indirect benefits of in-person participation in meetings and conferences, like networking and social interactions with peers, it could be critical in minimizing the need for brief single-meeting air travel, and in facilitating the broader cultural shift necessary to hold more virtual conferences, workshops, and meetings.

The presentation I attended focused only on my home institution, UBC.  But the problem most definitely is not organization-specific. Curiosity led me to probe a bit more into the environmental impact of large-scale conferences. 

Unsurprisingly, evidence was everywhere, once I knew what to look for. In an article titled Sustainable Science? published in Ethnobiology Letters, authors Alexandra Ponette-González  and Jarret Byrnes say that large national and international conferences, some of which host thousands of participants, represent a significant source of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Air travel to a single meeting can generate about 11,000 metric tons of CO2. A roundtrip flight from New York  City to Brussels is 1.4 metric tons of CO2 . According to Ponette-González and Byrnes, these numbers are at odds with the values of scientists who seek to slow the current rate of CO2 increase in the atmosphere, and especially those concerned with climate change. Like Wynes and Donner, they also talk about the necessity of a cultural shifts within academia.
 


 

What would such a cultural shift look like? Right now, virtual meetings and large-scale web conferences seem untenable substitutes for our in-person counterparts. Almost everyone who has been in virtual meetings has a story to share about the inevitable technical glitches; the lack of interactivity, audio lag, poor video quality, dropped connections. 

While the aviation industry races to replace fossil fuels and explore green alternatives such as battery-powered flights, do we sit back and wait for technological innovation to catch up with our expectations? Or should conference organizers initiate cultural shifts that are within reach, by emphasizing regional participation, while using venues with enhanced ICT facilities for remote collaboration?

The real issues go deeper. Even assuming that ICT breakthroughs for virtual meetings are around the corner, how does one address the ethically correct demands of the environment with imminent requirements of promotion and tenure, where the number of invitations to speak at international conferences is a universally important metric of quality? 

Is academic air travel a reliable predictor of professional success, or a dispensable artifact? And what about that other acknowledgement of merit - research support in the form of travel grants - that aims to bring geographically separated researchers together? Any proposed mitigating measure, such as a behavioral incentives program or employment of offsets only if locally-based, is likely to only gain traction if it is part of a larger directive that encompasses all educational institutions and funding agencies.

Any academic institute or organization that unilaterally aims to incorporate progressive environmental policies into its broader infrastructure, risks being at a competitive disadvantage in the current academic environment, at least in the early stages. 

Socially conscious academic organizations, such as the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (Sweden) and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) have already stepped up to the plate. But these remain tiny drops in a giant bucket. There is pressing need for larger deliberation within the academic community that could lead to global academic policy changes.

Our lives are complex, for the most part a tightrope walk of balancing priorities. Our planet, that supports these lives, is more complex still. Ironically, the benefits to one often seem to conflict with the other. Yet the end goal is clear; the planet must thrive, so that we can. The way to change seems partly obscure at the moment. But change we must.

 

 

Malabika Pramanik is a 2018 Wall Scholar and Professor in Mathematics at the University of British Columbia. She is currently working with fellow scholars Jessica Dempsey (Geography) and Sara Milstein (Classical, Near Eastern, and Religious Studies) to engage the broader academic community, within and outside UBC, on conversations surrounding academic aviation emissions. The Peter Wall Institute is supporting these conversations through its weekly seminars and Wall lunches. Professor Pramanik hopes to attract a distinguished scientist and activist who can speak on these issues (virtually!), possibly as part of a Wall Solutions Initiative.