One of the most important aspects of science is networking and information sharing. But this is becoming an increasingly difficult activity to justify given the potentially large ecological costs of attending international conferences. Indeed, air travel – much of it associated with attending meetings – has helped to push the personal carbon emissions of scientists well above average. As scientists, we should strive to not only educate people about the negative impacts of increasing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions through our studies and publications, but also through the examples that we set as responsible citizens ourselves. As such we need to be aware of the potential ecological costs of meetings and consider different strategies to minimize these costs.
Using attendance data from the past four conferences of the International Biogeography Society (IBS) as an example, we estimated GHG emissions for all attendees using the shortest possible direct flight distances to the meetings sites (Canary Islands in 2007, Mexico in 2009, Greece in 2011 and Miami USA in 2013) from their home countries. Using these data we estimated the amount of GHG emissions which could have been avoided if these meetings had been held in other locations.
Average GHG emissions associated with travel to the meetings ranged from 2.5-3.0 tonnes CO2 per attendee, with an average of 857.1 tonnes CO2 emitted per meeting. For all four meetings, the average travel distances to the actual meeting locations was significantly shorter than to random meeting locations, equating to an average saving of 3402.8 km of air travel per attendee and 324.1 tonnes CO2 per meeting. If meetings had been held at their optimal locations, there would have been additional average savings of 1866.6 km of round-trip air travel per attendee and 162.3 tonnes CO2 per meeting.
The IBS is scheduled to hold its next meeting in Bayreuth, Germany in January 2015. We predict that the attendees to this meeting will be responsible an average of 2.5 tonnes CO2 emission each. This is 0.2 tonnes CO2 more per person than would be incurred if the meeting were held at an overall optimal location of London, UK.
Society meetings allow for the rapid dissemination of new ideas and are a necessary part of science. We do not suggest that meetings should be done away with, but as responsible academics, serious efforts clearly need to be made to minimize the ecological costs of these meetings. One relatively easy way to minimize ecological costs is to make travel distances and GHG emissions explicit considerations when choosing meeting locations.