Lisanne Groen (United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability and Vrije Universiteit Brussel), Emel Türker (Ankara University) and Ira Shefer (Technical University of Munich)
Monitoring the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions resulting from academic conferences is unfortunately not yet a common practice. Raising awareness about the emissions that such events cause is recommended, as it can make academics reflect on their behaviour and drive them to choose climate-friendlier options such as reducing the number of far-away conferences they attend. This can increase academics’ contributions to tackling climate change as professionals who travel far to attend events much more often than the average employee.
Academics can be frontrunners, spreading the message to pay closer attention to efforts to reduce GHG emissions. The members of the INOGOV Early Career Investigators’ Network (ECIN) fulfilled such a role when they monitored the GHG emissions from travelling of a workshop they organised mid-February 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland using the Tyndall Travel Tracker survey. We, the participating students of the INOGOV Spring School held in Heerlen, the Netherlands in late March 2017, repeated the Zurich workshop exercise. However, we did not simply want to copy the exercise but to advance it by creating an estimation of the total emissions of the event, rather than just those from travelling. We also compared participants’ emissions with an annual personal carbon budget of 4 t CO2 equivalent (CO2e) as calculated by ShrinkThatFootprint  for 2020 required to stay below a global temperature increase of 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels.
As lodging, using conference venue facilities and consuming food and drinks are an inherent part of academic events, we should be also be aware of their GHG emissions. This is especially relevant for larger events. Therefore, not only did we track our travel emissions but we added emissions estimations for our food consumption during the Spring School (unfortunately we were unable to include emissions from our energy consumption). We also offered carbon offsetting options to participants and included a World Café discussion session on emissions monitoring. We did so with the aim to raise awareness among the participating students about their own emissions and to discuss practical solutions to reduce the emissions of academic events.
The emissions monitoring was done with a survey completed to 25 of the 29 participating students and teachers together with information and suggestions to use various offset mechanisms to compensate for their travel emissions, circulated before, during and after the Spring School. Regarding emissions from energy use and food consumption we first asked the hosting facilities, Eikhold Hostel and the Open University for any available data, however, this information was unavailable except for general information on the type of breakfast the hostel provides and its sustainability measures.
Given these constraints we decided to focus on a rough estimation of the group’s emissions from one daily meal (breakfast, teachers excluded as they did not stay in the hostel). Through an internet search we found a simple, free online calculator that estimates CO2 emissions from common products and meals throughout their life cycle (i.e. production, transportation and cooking). We chose five types of food that were closest to what was served at the hostel each morning (grain products, dairy, meat and eggs) and calculated their CO2e and verified that the calculator is comparable with general scales of GHG emissions from food (e.g. meat and dairy have a high emissions rate compared to vegetables).
Survey results reveal that our average per capita emissions from travelling were 651.84 kg (Figure 1), more than the double of the annual per capita emissions of Least Developed Countries in 2013 (310.56 kg). While much higher than the 290 kg average per capita travel emissions of the 2016 Zurich workshop, this can be explained by higher participation from outside of Europe in the Heerlen Spring School (e.g. from Turkey, Canada and Japan). Our travels to Heerlen used a high percentage of our 4 t CO2e annual personal carbon budget. Three out of 25 participants spent more than half of their estimated annual carbon budget travelling from other continents to Europe, while 11 participants spent more than 12.5% of their estimated annual carbon budget travelling to and from Heerlen.
The CO2 emissions due to travel from the 25 participants who filled in the survey, excluding offsets, are 16.296 tons: 14.906 tons due to air travel and 1.11 ton from trains. Furthermore, we found that breakfast GHG emissions per participant were 3.395 Kg CO2e, totalling 339.5 kg CO2e  during the four days. This is a lot lower than the total travel emissions from the Spring School; the total breakfast emissions amount to about 2% of the total travel emissions. Thus, if we want to reduce the GHG emissions from small-scale academic events like the Spring School, reducing travel emissions will have a much larger impact than trying to reduce emissions from food consumption. However, if the event includes many participants, e.g. more than a few hundred, serving vegetarian/vegan food could make a big difference to the event’s total amount of GHG emissions.
Lastly, at the World Café participants wrote ideas on three posters: what a low-carbon academic meeting should look like, which general low-carbon policies could be put in place at academic events, and how to create ‘environmental unity’ between researchers and their research that lead to philosophical reflections. On the first two posters participants wrote down initiatives to reduce carbon emissions from academic meetings and emissions in general, ranging from encouraging local and sustainable food supply to organising meetings in regional hubs with online participation to putting in place economic incentives for participants’ low carbon behaviour, such as rewards for vegetarians and travelling by land rather than by air. The usefulness of carbon offsetting was also discussed. Offsetting has been criticised in the past and attracted criticism from the participants, with some labelling it as a tool to “buy off guilt” rather than to change behaviour. Rounding off the World Café, participants were encouraged to bring the ideas on how to organise a ‘low-carbon’ academic event to their own institutions and to keep them in mind for when they organise such an event themselves.
Raising awareness among participants about the impact of academic events on our planet by monitoring GHG emissions in terms of travel, food consumption and energy use is important as it may bring about behaviour change of both participants and organisers. This can make such events climate-friendlier, which is needed if we want to stay below a global temperature increase of 2°C above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately academic research has thus far pointed to an increased awareness among citizens about their own carbon emissions contributing to climate change but a lack of behavioural engagement in adopting low-carbon lifestyles (see e.g. Dickinson et al. 2013; Howell 2014; Whitmarsh et al. 2011). Whitmarsh et al. (2011) emphasise the need for ‘carbon education’ in combination with structural measures to encourage lifestyle change. We still have a long way to go…
We wish to thank all participants for their cooperation in filling out the survey, and Jonas Schoenefeld and Alfie Kirk for their support in calculating the travel emissions data.
 ShrinkThatFootprint made this calculation for 2020, 2030, 2040 and 2050. After 2020 the annual carbon budget for each person worldwide has to decrease even further in order to stay below a 2° Celsius global temperature increase.
 The elaborated calculation is as follows: each meal’s (breakfast) emissions were estimated at 3.395kg CO2e per person. During four days it added up to 13.58kg CO2e per person. For 25 participants (teachers excluded), the 100 breakfasts reached approximately 339.5 kg CO2e (4 * 25 * 3.395kg (or 13.58kg * 25) = 339.5kg CO2e).
Dickinson, J.E., D. Robbins, V. Filimonau, A. Hares and M. Mika (2013), Awareness of Tourism Impacts on Climate Change and the Implications fro Travel Practice. A Polish Perspective, Journal of Travel Research 52(4), pp. 506-519.
Howell, R.A. (2014), Investigating the Long-Term Impacts of Climate Change Communications on Individuals’ Attitudes and Behavior, Environment and Behavior 46(1), pp. 70-101.
Whitmarsh, L., G. Seyfang and S. O’Neill (2011), Public engagement with carbon and climate change: To what extent is the public ‘carbon capable’?, Global Environmental Change 21(1), pp. 56-65.
Image credit: Flickr/iwishmynamewasmarsha