Conference Travel and Carbon Emissions: In the Midst of COVID-19, Some People Are Doing the Math

Pictures of the AGU Fall Centennial Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, which took place from Dec. 9-13, 2019. (Lindsey Moore/KQED)

Add the American Geophysical Union’s annual Fall Meeting to the list of events going virtual only this year due to COVID-19.

Last week, AGU announced that thousands of Earth scientists, geologists, researchers and science writers will attend the meeting online instead of descending on San Francisco’s Moscone Center. The conference, which will take place Dec. 7-11, is one of the largest annual scientific gatherings, usually featuring over 1,000 sessions on topics ranging from oceans to outer space.

The AGU joins the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Astronomical Society, the American Physical Society, and hundreds of other scientific organizations eschewing big in-person meetings in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

AGU’s organizers say if they get the go-ahead from San Francisco’s health officers, AGU may host a smaller regional gathering. But participants should still expect networking and poster hall presentations to occur in the digital realm, while sessions and talks will be recorded for attendees to enjoy “on demand” or to “binge watch,” according to the announcement.

Tens of thousands of people attend AGU each year, not only for the scientific presentations, but to go on field trips to local labs, visit stunning geologic formations, meet with colleagues and mentors, and socialize at parties and happy hours hosted by academic journals.

These aspects of conferences like AGU are especially important for early-career scientists, who are meeting future collaborators and looking for jobs.

Rethinking Large Events

The shift to online gatherings is part of a larger trend in reimagining experiences centered on human interaction at a time when large gatherings are mostly banned.

The pandemic provided a window into a world of diminished driving, as well as speculation about unnecessary office space. In California, stay-at-home orders pushed so many drivers off the road that vehicle emissions dropped by as much as 75%, according to a UC Davis estimate.

While people are starting to return to the roads, state leaders and researchers hope investments in high-speed internet deployment and the transfer of more government functions online — virtual DMV visits, anyone? — can help California decarbonize transportation. Bay Area technology firms like Facebook and Twitter that have expanded work-from-home options in the face of the pandemic could be bellwethers for making physical attendance at the office obsolete.

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‘A Bleep Ton’ of Emissions

This year’s conference, promoted with the social media hashtag #AGU20, will be a test of the virtual conference experience. And hold the carbon emissions, please.

“Virtual participation in scientific meetings has great potential to increase access, reduce carbon footprints and diversify meeting attendance to the benefit of all participants — and to take attendees beyond conventional meeting spaces, into laboratories or remote field sites,” said Susan Lozier, AGU’s president-elect and council chair.

Lozier didn’t say if any changes to the conference will be permanent. But the organization acknowledged in its announcement that the virtual meeting will mean “our carbon footprint will be less than ever before,” and it noted an emissions calculator would be placed on its website. 

Calculating the carbon footprint of a conference like AGU is tricky, but in 2019, one academic estimated that to get to the annual meeting and back, roughly 28,000 scientists traveled a combined 151 million miles resulting in 69,300 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

That amount of CO2 is the equivalent of the combined yearly carbon output of 1,443 average American families.

“That’s a bleep ton, really just a staggering number,” said Kim Cobb, a climate scientist with Georgia Tech, who has long advocated for conferences like AGU taking steps to reduce the need to travel long distances.

“You're talking about a conference that's responsible for thousands and thousands of tons of carbon in five days,” she said. “It's something that we're going to have to come to grips with.”

She hopes that science meetings improve virtual participation, consider holding major in-person gatherings biennially instead of annually, and organize smaller satellite gatherings instead of one central conference.

The pandemic, she says, is providing an opportunity to think about a “vision for conferences that could be done partly remotely or fully remotely.”

Of course, scaling back live meetings would have an economic impact, especially for cities like San Francisco.

During AGU, the cafes, restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the South of Market neighborhood where the conference is located brim with attendees toting conference badges and spending money. An Oxford Economic study commissioned by the Events Industry Council estimates that billions of people attend conferences worldwide annually, spending over a trillion dollars.

A group of 12 academics noted last year that the footprint of a traveling scholar is likely larger than that of the average person, calling on research institutions to limit emissions.

“Our institutional practices should shift to reduce academic air travel,” they wrote. “To be clear, we aren’t calling for a moratorium on flying, and specific personal and professional situations will inevitably require some of us to travel more than others. But even modest changes could significantly reduce the carbon footprint of our professional practice. To that end, we’re calling on academic associations, societies and other organizations to require less flying.”

One of the authors, Heidi Roop, a climate science at the University of Washington, said while some conferences livestream talks and other events, they don’t put everything online. She hopes the pandemic will change that.

“There isn't yet a pick-your-own-adventure conference virtually, where you could be in-person or virtual,” she said. “My hope is we start thinking seriously about it, not just because of the pandemic, but because of our carbon footprint and the environmental impact of all the traveling.”

Presenting a Paper ... Over Zoom

Earth scientist Chris Field took his first Stanford research appointment at the Carnegie Institution for Science in 1984. He estimates traveling as much as a third of the year to conduct climate research, meet with collaborators and attend conferences. The pace has declined, but he still takes two to four trips a month.

For the most part, all that travel is powered by fossil fuels.

Being forced to work remotely has been “transformative,” he said. He’s more productive, and he doesn’t have to battle jet lag and late-night flights.

“I was not tuned in to the fraction of my time that I was going to the airport, hanging out in the airport, waiting in traffic and checking into the hotel, doing whatever,” he said. “That’s not rocket science to figure that out. But it is impactful.”

He says the experience of presenting science online is better than inside a cavernous conference hall. “I've done a number of presentations and webinars and conversations, and it is easier in some ways; nobody's sitting at the back of the room and can't see the slides. And you have control over where the pointer is on the slide and all that stuff.”

While the presentations may be better, it certainly cannot replace the tangible and intangible benefits of personal interaction with colleagues, competitors, mentors and students.

One of the next frontiers that we'll have to address as we think about a new way of doing business is how do you cement the pieces of personal interaction,” he said. “They are really important.”

AGU says it will soon announce a variety of online tools meant to enable personal interaction between scientists at this year's meeting. These "will also serve as the foundation for the future of AGU Fall Meetings.”

Stay-at-Home, Forever

While stay-at-home orders have catalyzed a movement of what is sometimes called distributed or remote work, it’s not a new idea — GitLab, InVision, and Buffer are just a few companies that operate with no central office and employees spread all over the world.

Matt Mullenweg, the founder of the content management program WordPress, which hosts this website and many others, now runs a fully distributed company called Automattic, and long before the coronavirus swept the world, he argued, “Distributed is the future of work.”

Mullenweg, recently penned a kind of victory blog post — titled “Gradually, then suddenly” —  in response to the host of top-shelf tech companies announcing they would transition their workplaces for more remote work.

“What’s going to be newsworthy by the end of the year is not technology companies saying they’re embracing distributed work, but those that aren’t,” Mullenweg said. “Those who thought this couldn’t work have been forced by the pandemic to do it anyway, and they’ve now seen that it’s possible.”

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