Carbon footprint of virtual academic conferences revealed

Emissions from an entire online conference similar to amount produced by a single hour-long car journey, study finds

October 28, 2022
carbon emissions divestment
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Holding an academic conference online produces little over 1 per cent of the carbon emissions generated by a single round-trip journey between New York and London, a study suggests.

While the carbon footprint of virtual events is known to be vastly lower than in-person meetings, research led by academics at the University of Bristol has quantified the exact level of pollution produced by a conference for the first time.

Using an online tool developed by Bristol and sustainability consultants Carnstone, researchers calculated that the two-day University Press Redux conference held in May, which featured more than 100 attendees from across the world, produced between 15kg to 20kg of carbon dioxide from the use of IT equipment – roughly the amount generated by a single 50-mile (80km) car journey.

That compares with the 1,130kg that a single passenger travelling between John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and London Heathrow would generate from their 6,800-mile round trip.

That means that the carbon emissions from a single transatlantic journey are between 56 and 75 times higher than an entire medium-sized virtual academic conference.

The study, which was commissioned by the event’s host, Cambridge University Press, would help to address myths that had arisen about the energy consumption related to digital devices, said Will Pickett, who leads the DIMPACT project to monitor energy use by digital devices.

“There has been a lot of misrepresentation about digital emissions – first, there was an assumption that anything digital was entirely free of any carbon footprint, but then we moved to stories that emissions were actually really high,” explained Mr Pickett. In the latter case, these related to accounts about the energy consumption connected to cryptocurrencies or social media, with a single Instagram post by the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo to his 163 million followers generating the same amount of carbon dioxide as 10 houses in a year.

“It’s important that we know what the carbon emissions of conferences really are, rather than speculating,” he added.

The data analysed emissions related to the number of participants who logged on to the event’s videoconferencing platform, and also tracked whether they had connected via a fixed-line internet connection or a cellular network.

Comparing the carbon emissions of online and offline events directly was, however, still hard to do, said Mr Pickett. “When people go to conferences, they will often attend a few events, network and hold some other meetings or lunches, which makes direct comparisons difficult, so we didn’t try to do that,” he said.

Daniel Schien, senior lecturer in Bristol’s department of computer science, where the tool was developed, said the results “show very robustly that when using existing digital equipment, the share of carbon emissions from electricity consumption for such an online event are several orders of magnitude smaller than those from travel.”

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