Conferences and Carbon Footprints

By / par Sharon Morsink (University of Alberta)
(Cassiopeia – Summer / été 2020)

Authors: CASCA’s Sustainability Committee and Associates:
Sharon Morsink, Nicolas Cowan, Dennis Crabtree, Michael De Robertis, René Doyon, Vincent Henault-Brunet, Roland Kothes, David Lafrenière, Martine Lokken, Peter Martin, Christopher Matzner, Magdalen Normandeau, Nathalie Ouellette, Mubdi Rahman, Michael Reid, Joel Roediger, James Taylor, Robert Thacker, Marten van Kerkwijk

Canadians are responsible for CO2 emissions that are more than three times the annual global average of 4.8 tonnes per capita [1]. Most Canadian astronomers’ professional carbon footprint is dominated by air travel, and unlike telescope construction or rocket launches, flights — especially to conferences — are the immediate product of our individual choices. To reduce the environmental costs of our profession, we need real and desirable alternatives to jetting around to distant conferences.

Back in February, CASCA’s new Sustainability Committee was planning a virtual session for this year’s Annual General Meeting. But when the York meeting was cancelled due to the pandemic, an Online Organizing Committee was quickly assembled to plan a fully virtual conference. May’s online AGM, which was based around electronic posters and pre-recorded prize talks and community updates, drew 336 participants. We estimate that if everyone who participated from outside Ontario had flown in, the equivalent CO2 emissions would have been about 130 tonnes. (This may be an overestimate, as 43 respondents indicated on an exit survey that they would not have attended the in-person conference.)

The 2020 AGM was an interesting experiment, but how do we move forward? We aren’t advocating that all future conferences be completely virtual; we too would miss interacting with colleagues in person from time to time! Instead we would like to see the virtual options enhanced. We envision a future in which one would travel only to nearby conferences, and join remotely in most other cases. In the AGM exit survey (40% participation), about 60% of respondents reported missing the interactions that occur in person. Clearly, there is much work to be done to find effective and enjoyable ways to interact online with colleagues, but with improving text, video, and virtual reality options we believe this is possible. For instance, one could consider simultaneous physical meeting `hubs’ connected by a virtual link. Taking these points into consideration, the 2021 AGM organizers are already planning both in-person and remote ways to participate.

We encourage all astronomers to carefully consider how to minimize the impact of their research-related travel. In addition to being more selective about which conferences and meetings to attend in person, we recommend purchasing carbon offsets for those times when travel is needed. Not all institutions allow offsets to be reimbursed, and current NSERC spending rules for Discovery grants do not. Persistent advocacy is needed to change these policies, something which the Sustainability Committee will pursue. It is time for us to consider the environmental impact of our research, take stock of our own emissions, and plan a professional carbon budget in the same way that we plan a financial budget when managing our research grants.

[1] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2017) – « CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions ». Published online at OurWorldInData.org.

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