The COVID-19 pandemic advanced the trend in virtual conferences. There’s evidence for keeping them to reduce the climate impacts.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, academics and business professionals were shifting away from in-person travel to conference events because of the related carbon costs, especially for air travel.
Climate leaders from Sweden’s Greta Thunberg to Dr. Peter Kalmus, the founder of “No Fly Climate Sci,” were calling attention to the environmental impacts of these gatherings. Whether it’s the 118 private planes that took leaders to COP26 in Scotland, or the high-emission foods on the menu at Davos, the public now notices too.
But pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions accelerated the change, and advanced the idea that virtual and hybrid conference options could successfully replace these in-person events. Now there’s new research to support that conclusion, with even more precise calculations on the carbon emission reductions that might be achieved by making it a permanent practice.
Researchers at Cornell University in the United States, working with American and Czech counterparts, found that the carbon footprint of these in-person conferences might be reduced by 94% if those events were held entirely online. Total energy use would be reduced by 90%.
Even if more than half of the people at an event attended in person, a two-thirds reduction in carbon footprint could be achieved by using strategically selected cities as hubs for the face-to-face gatherings.
“We all go to conferences. We fly, we drive, we check in to a hotel, give a talk, meet people – and we’re done,” said Cornell’s Dr. Fengqi You, the senior author of the paper. It was published in December in the journal Nature Communications.
“But we looked at this problem comprehensively and behind the scenes,” You added. “Conventions generate a lot of carbon, consume a lot of energy, print a lot of paper, offer a lot of food – not to mention create municipal solid waste.”
More than 1.5 billion people in 180 countries attended events in 2017, in numbers that are expected to grow at a rate of 11.2% this decade, according to data from the paper.
The existing total carbon emissions for the global event industry already are comparable to the annual greenhouse gas emissions found in the United States. So changing the way conferences are planned has the potential to deliver significant results.
At the same time, the industry supports some 26 million jobs and accounts for US$2.5 trillion in spending at conference destinations. Those who advocate for in-person conferences point out the complications when face-to-face contact is lost, meeting times span multiple time zones, and participants are wearied by digital-meeting fatigue.
In some cases, hybrid events may present an acceptable tradeoff but there are many considerations. For example, hybrid hub-location models reduce air travel emissions but raise the emissions caused by car travel. The number of registered participants and their locations also change the dynamics.
“There is a lot of interest and attention on climate change, so moving from in-person conferences to hybrid or remote events would be beneficial,” says You. “But we should also be cautious and optimize decisions in terms of selecting hubs and determining participant levels for hybrid meetings.”
Overall environmental sustainability of the virtual and in-person conferences.