Pre-Covid, scientists and more generally academics clocked up thousands and thousands of airmiles to attend conferences, workshops, and various other professional meetings. I know: I did the same. Many of us would travel at least once a month (some weekly) to often remote locations to give talks, lectures, or review grants and proposals, and attend advisory boards or scientific councils. Extensive travelling was for the most part unnecessary but provided some kind of validation as to the impact of our work and our status in the academic and research world. Part of the travelling was also very useful: conferences remain wonderful communication tools where ideas can thrive, new unpublished knowledge can be revealed, and collaborations can be set up between colleagues. They also offer inspiring moments, not least for the younger attendees.
However, there is a problem: travelling means releasing carbon into the atmosphere, and thus exacerbates global warming. With the Covid-19 pandemic monopolising all our attention, it is easy to forget that man-made climate change is already unleashing another catastrophe that threatens to be much worse than the Covid-19 crisis. Covid-19 has halted academic travel brutally but we must commit to not returning to the pre-Covid era of unrestrained travel once a vaccine or/and a cure to SARS-CoV2 infection is found.
So, what should a new climate-friendly model of conferencing look like? In fact, three models are possible, which I would term “limited action”, “hybrid action”, or “stringent action”. Let’s examine these models starting with the stringent one.
Stringent action model
The stringent action model advocates a complete ban on travel. In this model, all conferences and meetings go online. Adopting such a model implicitly signifies that we consider climate change an issue of such utmost gravity that we must stop releasing carbon immediately whatever the consequences and the price. In a stringent action model, science may flow more slowly, ideas may take a longer while to emerge, inspiration might have to be sought elsewhere, but a stringent action model of academic travel justifies itself by recognising the gravity of the situation and that urgent action is required. Although online conferencing is far from being carbon-neutral, the added energy consumption due to increase usage of computers and other devices resulting from attending virtual conferences is small compared to the damage caused by carbon release due to travelling. This is especially true when the energy powering these devices is itself mostly carbon neutral as in France (where energy is mostly of nuclear origin) and, at least partly, in the UK and some other European countries which have strong wind-power infrastructure. The stringent model might be harsh but we must not forget that the harshest of measures were taken to limit the spread of SARS-CoV2 during the Spring 2020 lockdown.
Yet, many will consider SARS-CoV2 a lesser threat than global warming. It is therefore not entirely unconceivable that we scientists decide to stop traveling altogether and decide to not release a single gram of carbon before all modes of transportation have become carbon neutral, including airplanes (a prospect made plausible by the recent announcement from Airbus that they will be developing soon hydrogen-powered airplanes).
The limited action model
A “limited action” model would suggest that nothing much really needs to change. It would argue that carbon emissions caused by academic travels is anyway negligible and that drastic or hybrid carbon-reducing actions by scientists would contribute very little to the global emissions reduction goals required to limit the rise of temperature. It offers only tweaks, recognising for example that conferences in remote beauty spots are perhaps a waste of tax-payer or registration money and can be relocated to more accessible locations. Advocates of the limited action model may have a point: in the global scheme of things, we are indeed minor contributors to worldwide emissions. My university, UCL, has for example calculated that we, UCL academics, emit 19,490 tonnes of CO2e per year, the bulk of which is taken up by air travel (18,317 tonnes). A back-of-the-envelope calculation would indicate that academic travel by UK academics in the first 100 top UK HE institutions would account for about 2 million tonnes of CO2e emissions, a relatively small but not negligible amount.
The hybrid action model
The “hybrid action” model is the model most scientists talk about at the moment. It consists of a mixed economy of virtual (online) and physical (in-person) conferencing. It includes a number of measures aiming to considerably reduce the carbon footprint of academic travel. These principles are: 1- move the event online as often as possible to reach the highest possible ratio of virtual versus physical/in-person conferences in any particular field; 2- reduce as much as possible the number of physical/in-person conferences by either combining conferences in related fields or/and decreasing their frequency; 3- locate physical/in-person conferences exclusively within urban centres readily accessible by trains; 4- ban air travel and invite overseas speakers to intervene online; 5- reduce car travel by suggesting car-pooling; 6- All physical/in-person or virtual/online conferences should assess their carbon footprint, make every effort to reduce it, and offset the unreducible part of their footprint by contributing to carbon offsetting programmes; 7- registration costs should include the costs of offsetting as well as any other environmental costs; 8- best practices should be adopted to reduce waste.
One particular worry expressed by all researchers about online conferencing is its detrimental effect on social and personal communication. I share this concern too. My students and postdocs speak with great emotion of their time spent at conferences, not just a welcome break from lab work, but above all, a constant source of inspiration from junior and senior colleagues with whom they strike up friendships for life. I enjoyed talking to my colleagues and listening to suggestions for new experiments to take home and try. Is there a way to make online conferences more social? Well…there is! It might not beat in-person encounters and exchanges, but the myriad of initiatives and ideas that we have witnessed all over the world during the Covid-19 Spring lockdowns to make our lives more bearable have provided reasons to hope that fun and joy, as well as serious and profound discussions, can be had online.
Facing the dreadful prospect of global warming, I don’t believe that the “limited action” model is an option. As scientists, we have a moral obligation to do something. More than any other social or professional groups, we trust the global warming data, we know climate change models are accurate, we are aware of the impending catastrophe climate change is about to wreak on humanity. We must live by example and therefore must not return to the pre-Covid travelling frenzy. So, the only two options available to us are, I believe, the stringent and hybrid action models. Choosing between the two will depend on our assessment of the threat. If the threat is judged to be overwhelming, we must move to the stringent action model. My instincts have always been guided by moderation and I would suggest we move to a hybrid model at least until 2030, a date on which the IPCC has based many of its predictions. But if, by 2030, the world is on target for an increase in temperature beyond 1.5∞C, I am afraid, the stringent action model will need to be embraced.