Carbon Case studies Measurement Social Responsibility

How Digital Event Formats Have Affected the Environmental Impact of and Inclusion in Meetings and Conferences: Available Research

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a massive shift toward digital event strategies. And an upswing in research into the effect of such changes on the environmental impact and accessibility of meetings and conventions specifically. In an effort to share lessons forward and improve future events, please find several insightful papers below. Aware of a scholarly article or case study research that should be included? Please leave a comment!

Biermann, M. Which speakers will benefit from the rise in remote seminar presentations? London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance. 8 December 2021. Link

“…results contribute to a debate about why women are underrepresented in high paying occupations. In the field of economics, women have historically been under-represented relative to other research fields. The literature has discussed the under-representation of women in other professions such as corporate management and law firms. My paper highlights that more flexible job arrangements, such as reducing the requirement to travel, could increase the representation of women in these occupations thereby potentially narrowing the existing gap.”

Bousema, T.; Burtscher, L.; van Rij, R. P.; Barret, D., Whitfield, K. The critical role of funders in shrinking the carbon footprint of research. The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 6, Issue 1, 2022. Link.

“Given the digital shift that has occurred during the pandemic and the escalating climate crisis, now is the time to embed sustainable practices into our research culture. We argue that funders are in a powerful position to promote sustainable research practices by stimulating, incentivising, and even requiring thoughtful academic travel. An important initial step is to require a description of sustainable practices in funding applications, analogous to the way funders promote gender equality in research. Funders can require absolute reductions in the number of in-person meetings hosted or attended by grantees and insist on clear justifications from researchers for why meetings are organised in-person instead of virtually. Funders should set virtual meetings as the default for disseminating findings and international travel should be reserved for dedicated networking initiatives, career development, capacity building, and the international exchange of research staff. There should be increased financial support for virtual conferences and low-carbon modes of travel (eg, by train or coach).”

Davids, R.; Scheelbeek, P.; Sobratee, N.; Green, R.; Häesler, B.; Mabhaudhi, T.; Chatterjee, S.; Venkateshmurthy, N.S.; Mace, G.; Dangour, A.; Slotow, R. Towards the Three Dimensions of Sustainability for International Research Team Collaboration: Learnings from the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems Research Programme. Sustainability 2021, 13, 12427. Link

“For one international meeting with 107 participants, changing to a virtual format reduced the per capita GHG emissions to half the annual global average, and avoided 60% of travel costs. The benefits of VCs outweighed weaknesses. The main strengths were inclusivity and access, with 20% more early/mid-career researchers attending. This study identified opportunities for international research partnerships to mitigate their carbon footprint (environmental benefit) and enhance inclusivity of early/mid-career, women and Global South participants (social benefit), whilst continuing to deliver effective collaborative research meetings (economic benefit). In doing so, we present a holistic view of sustainability opportunities for virtual collaboration.”

Epp, S. M., Jung, H., Borghesani, V., Klöwer, M., Hoeppli, M., Misiura, M., … Rae, C. (2022, June 17). How can we reduce the climate costs of OHBM? A vision for a more sustainable meeting. Link

“In this report, authored by the Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group (SEA-SIG), we analysed the carbon footprint of previous Organization for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) meetings, and found that on average, attendees travelling to an in-person meeting generates over 10,000 tonnes of carbon. Virtually all these emissions are eliminated when we meet online instead. The location of in-person meetings also matters: setting the meeting in a place that requires more colleagues to take long-distance flights very significantly increases its climate costs, sometimes by up to three times as much as the lowest-carbon locations. We can do things differently, however. Hybrid meetings -accessible both in-person and online -are set to become the norm for academic societies around the world. Although driven by Covid, hybrid is here to stay, because of the many other benefits it brings to both accessibility and sustainability. There are also several other alternative meeting formats being explored by academic societies, such as a biennial meeting (every other year), and multiple regional hubs, in which attendees travel to their nearest geographical meeting location. Using aviation carbon footprint modelling, we calculated the carbon savings that OHBM would make under these future meeting formats. We also determined the most climate-friendly locations for in-person aspects of future meetings, and the least climate-friendly places to avoid. As a result, we recommend that all future OHBM meetings are fully hybrid. We furthermore recommend that OHBM transitions to a multiple regional hub model (with hybrid attendance also supported), in locations specifically chosen to minimise long-distance aviation. We do not advocate carbon offsetting as a suitable alternative to tackling real-time reductions in aviation emissions.”

Faber, G. (2021) A framework to estimate emissions from virtual conferences, International Journal of Environmental Studies, 78:4, 608-623, Link

“While virtual conferences emit far less greenhouse gas emissions relative to their physical counterparts, they still have a considerable impact on the environment arising from participant computer life cycle emissions, network data transfer energy use, server energy use, and other activities that would not have happened without the conference. This article proposes a modifiable framework for systematically measuring the emissions attributable to such conferences using data about participant computers, Internet energy intensity, network data transfer, server power ratings, and other relevant factors. Strategies to reduce emissions attributable to virtual conferences are also proposed based on the framework.”

Gattrell, W.T., Barraux, A., Comley, S. et al. The Carbon Costs of In-Person Versus Virtual Medical Conferences for the Pharmaceutical Industry: Lessons from the Coronavirus Pandemic. Pharm Med 36, 131–142 (2022). Link

“Carbon emissions associated with virtual attendance were two orders of magnitude lower than for in-person attendance, and therefore the benefits of in-person attendance at medical congresses must be balanced against the carbon cost. Due diligence around who should attend and how they should travel to face-to-face meetings, and consideration of hybrid and domestic satellite options could be part of a balanced solution to reducing carbon emissions.”

Hernandez, M., Xu, S., Toh, L. and Attwood, S. Business Air Travel and Climate: Changing Behaviors Before, During, and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic. World Resources Institute. 12 October 2021. Link

“Results from World Resources Institute (WRI) indicate that COVID-19 travel restrictions were a transformative event that drastically changed not only its business travel behaviors, but its staff perceptions and reduction commitments as well. COVID travel restrictions resulted in significant emissions, budgetary, and time savings. Moving to virtual meetings resulted in 2,200 fewer flights in 10 months, a 92 percent decrease compared to the same period in 2019, pre-pandemic. This reduction in flights avoids 3,000 mt CO2e, US$2.6 million in ticket expenses, and 11,000 hours in flight time for staff.”

Dr. Ying-Syuan (Elaine) Huang & Dr. Blane Harvey. Re-imagining Knowledge Mobilization in a Carbon-constrained World. August 15, 2022. McGill University. Link

“…deep societal transformations are needed if we are to avoid irreversible impacts of climate change on human wellbeing, particularly for populations that are most vulnerable to its impacts. Academic institutions like McGill are integral to this transformation, both in their potential for pioneering new solutions, but also as contributors to the climate crisis itself. How must academic practices reinvent themselves in the face of this crisis? Our research on low-carbon conferencing in the fields of climate and sustainability has been exploring one dimension of this question.”

Kane B., Michie S., Reicher S., Drury J., Griffin S., Alwan N. A. et al. How can we make attendance at scientific conferences inclusive? BMJ 2022; 379 :o2872 doi:10.1136/bmj.o2872. Link

“As scientists and physicians, one highlight of our working life is attending national and international conferences. They are essential to our work as innovators and practitioners focused on delivering the best quality of care. They provide opportunities to form collaborations, consider different perspectives, share ideas, and learn. In 2020, heightened awareness of the risks of large gatherings for the spread of covid-19 meant that scientific conferences moved exclusively online. While it was a very different experience, it allowed a wider community to engage in scientific sessions. We hope to convince you that if you are intending to organise a purely in-person event, making it hybrid with a virtual attendance option is actually the most logical, productive, and inclusive way forward.”

Klöwer , M., Hopkins, D. , Allen, M., Higham, J. An analysis of ways to decarbonize conference travel after COVID-19. Nature 583, 356-359 (2020). Link

“…in May, the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union (EGU) ran its sessions and panels online. It is the largest European meeting of geoscientists, with 16,000 attendees in a typical year. There was an upside to making it virtual — attendance rose to 26,000. Some climate and sustainability conferences have long been held online, including the Virtual Island Summit and Virtual Blue COP25. Of course, for some academics, especially in their early career stages, occasional face-to-face interactions are likely to remain important, for example to aid networking. Here, we present an original analysis of the potential emissions savings of doing things differently. We compare several actions that, by our calculations, can reduce conference travel emissions by up to 90%, including holding a conference biennially in accessible locations, having regional hubs, and increasing virtual presentations.”

Leonora King, Lucy MacKenzie, Marc Tadaki, Sara Cannon, Kiely McFarlane, David Reid, and Michele Koppes. Diversity in geoscience: Participation, behaviour, and the division of scientific labour at a Canadian geoscience conference. FACETS. 3(1): 415-440. Link

“Examination of audience behaviours between presenters reveals how a “chilly climate” can be experienced by women and other marginalized demographics in conferences. We argue that there is more to be done than simply increasing numbers of women or other minorities in geoscientific spaces, and we suggest pathways to making geoscience a more inclusive and democratic pursuit.”

Marabelli, M. Guest Post — Hybrid Versus In-person: What Will Be the Future of Academic Conferences? Scholarly Kitchen. 16 May 2022. Link

“Our data analysis highlighted three distinct issues related to attending conferences, which were substantially mitigated by remote options. First, financial issues: most people reported that they were able to attend an international conference for the first time, as they couldn’t otherwise afford travel costs. Second, flexibility: several study participants noted that they could better manage their professional and personal (family) commitments by attending remotely and being able to watch recordings of sessions (this was especially true for women, who are still, for the most, the primary carers for children, as indicated by a 2020 Nature paper). Last, safety: this concerned health (because of COVID), but also other aspects of travel safety.”

Moss, Vanessa A., Hotan, Aidan W., Kobayashi, Rika, Rees, Glen A., Siegel, Coralie, Tremblay, Chenoa D., Trenham, Claire E., Engelke, Ulrich, Gray, Amanda, Hurley-Walker, Natasha, & Roos, Goedele. (2020, December 18). The Future of Meetings: Outcomes and Recommendations. The Future of Meetings Symposium (TFOM), Virtual. Link.

“Over a period of three days (15th – 17th September 2020), we organised and hosted an entirely-virtual symposium on “The Future of Meetings” (hereafter, TFOM). This report collects our findings and observations over the entire period from conceiving the symposium to the post-event phase. Our goal is to share the many lessons we learned in putting TFOM together, as well as our recommendations for best practice for interactions (especially of a virtual kind) going forward. We treated this symposium as a chance to experiment with many different approaches (both technical and sociological) to discover what worked best and where improvement is needed. We hope this document is useful for those considering future ways of optimising virtual/digital interactions.”

Kevin E. Liang, Jessica Q. Dawson, Matei D. Stoian, Dylan G. Clark, Seth Wynes & Simon D. Donner (2021) A carbon footprint study of the Canadian medical residency interview tour, Medical Teacher, 43:11, 1302-1308, DOI: 10.1080/0142159X.2021.1944612 Link

“Mandatory in-person residency interviews in Canada contribute significant emissions and reflect a culture of emissions-intensive practices. Considerable decarbonization of the CaRMS tour is possible, and transitioning to virtual interviews could eliminate the footprint almost entirely.”

Skiles, M., Yang, E., Reshef, O. et al. Conference demographics and footprint changed by virtual platforms. Nature Sustainability 5, 149–156 (2022). Link

“Our findings reveal that VCs reduce the environmental impact of conferences, the financial burden and the social cost. In the VC format, researchers are much more likely to be able to overcome economic and travel-related barriers that are intrinsic to in-person conferences and that ultimately discourage participation from institutions and countries with limited resources, women, disabled scientists and early career researchers and practitioners (for example, students and postdoctoral researchers)…Thus, virtual formats can provide an excellent avenue to address DEI challenges stemming from barriers to participation and representation at IPCs and other professional events. However, despite these clear benefits, the difficulties networking in a virtual environment are routinely emphasized as a limitation.”

Adam R. H. Stevens, Vanessa A. Moss. Driving action on the climate crisis through Astronomers for Planet Earth and beyond. CAPjournal, issue 32 (2022). Link

“Astronomers for Planet Earth is an international organisation (more than 1,700 members from over 70 countries as of November 2022) that seeks to answer the call for sustainability to be at the heart of astronomers’ practices. In this article, we review the organisation’s history, summarising the proactive, collaborative efforts and research into astronomy sustainability conducted by its members. We update the state of affairs with respect to the carbon footprint of astronomy research, noting an improvement in renewable energy powering supercomputing facilities in Australia, reducing that component of our footprint by a factor of 2–3. We discuss how, despite accelerated changes made throughout the pandemic, we still must address the format of our meetings. Using recent annual meetings of the Australian and European astronomical societies as examples, we demonstrate that the more online-focussed a meeting is, the greater its attendance and the lower its emissions.”

Tao, Y., Steckel, D., Klemeš, J.J. et al. Trend towards virtual and hybrid conferences may be an effective climate change mitigation strategy. Nat Commun 12, 7324 (2021). Link

“…transitioning from in-person to virtual conferencing can substantially reduce the carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. For the sake of maintaining more than 50% of in-person participation, carefully selected hubs for hybrid conferences have the potential to slash carbon footprint and energy use by two-thirds. Furthermore, switching the dietary type of future conferences to plant-based diets and improving energy efficiencies of the information and communication technology sector can further reduce the carbon footprint of virtual conferences.”

Joe Yates, Suneetha Kadiyala, Yuemeng Li, Sylvia Levy, Abel Endashaw, Hallie Perlick, Parke Wilde. Can virtual events achieve co-benefits for climate, participation, and satisfaction? Comparative evidence from five international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences. The Lancet Planetary Health, Volume 6, Issue 2, 2022. Link

“The advancement of science and evidence-based solutions for planetary health increasingly require interdisciplinary and international learning and sharing. Yet aviation travel to academic conferences is carbon-intensive and expensive, thus perpetuating planetary health and equity challenges. Using data from five annual international Agriculture, Nutrition and Health Academy Week conferences from 2016 to 2020, we explore whether moving to virtual conferencing produced co-benefits for climate, participation, attendee interaction, and satisfaction. We report on: absolute number of attendees, proportion of attendees from countries of different income levels, number of participants at social events, aviation CO2 emissions, and overall ratings of the event by participants. Transitioning online resulted in large reductions in travel-related aviation CO2 emissions, alongside increased attendance—including among attendees from low-income and middle-income countries. This was achieved without a major change in the participant rating of the event. However, the online format resulted in lower participation in conference social events. The urgency of reducing CO2 emissions in pursuit of planetary health and improving equity in scientific exchange requires new modalities of academic conferencing. This study indicates that co-benefits can be achieved when transitioning online. Challenges exist for virtual events, such as emulating the intangible facets of in-person interactions, overcoming time-zone limitations, and digital divides.”

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