The other day, as I boarded a budget airline plane to attend a conference in Spain, I was overcome with a feeling I’ve come to recognise: carbon-footprint guilt. As a PhD student, this would be my first international conference, an exciting chance to meet fellow researchers in my field – feminism and gender studies – and discuss topics we care about. But as I sat chatting casually with other academics headed the same way, I couldn’t help but worry about how my short trip would harm the environment.
My booking confirmation showed the figures: the outbound flight would release 178kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the return another 168kg. Short flights add up quickly, and airlines such as Ryanair are now ranked among Europe’s top polluters. Off-setting emissions is reasonable, but it’s really just a way of covering our backs.
Academic conferences present a dilemma for climate-conscious researchers and educators. If we are to be truly ethical in our research practices, we need to confront the high environmental price of the international conference circuit, which includes emissions and the wasteful use of finite resources. It can feel hypocritical to buy into this when I try to be as environmentally aware as I can in my day-to-day life. I’ve stopped buying new clothes, gone vegan, given up my car, started using fairer tech and shopping at an ethical and plastic-free shop. But none of this stopped me from boarding that plane to speed up the journey.
Travel isn’t the only damaging aspect of conference culture. At registration, I was given a plastic name tag holder, badges, a pen and a guide to the local city. We have come to expect these promotional items, but they’re not exactly essential. And then there is the ubiquitous event-branded cotton tote bag. A report from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency showed that I would have to use the bag thousands of times to make it worth the resources used to produce it, yet it is currently just hanging on my bedroom door handle with various other cotton companions from universities, galleries and libraries.
Encouragingly at my conference, the food was vegan and prepared on site at the venue’s canteen. Yet there was still the looming presence of plastic water bottles at lunch, even if a sign encouraged the use of disposable cups for tea and coffee.
Entirely eco-friendly conference models are possible, and indeed already being realised. The Nearly Carbon-Neutral conference model is freely available for guidance and recommends that all proceedings take place online. The creators of the open-access concept want to challenge the traditional format, uploading videos that remain on the website as accessible resources and creating Q&A sessions that allow for more discussion time than the typical – usually very rushed – question round after a panel.
Not only are these arrangements more sustainable than travelling across the world for a few days, they open up participation for people who cannot afford travel or obtain visas. Undoubtedly, online meetings are not the same as face-to-face debates or continued conversations over coffee, but they can create new avenues for collaboration. Equally, refraining from international travel for a symposium might also steer attention to more local dialogue. In my immediate surroundings, there are countless people whose research I know nothing about.
What’s more, reducing air travel does not necessarily have serious career consequences. Recent research published in the Journal of Cleaner Production has shown no direct correlation between flying and academic publication output. More senior male academics were found to have much higher emissions: this carbon spending could be cut, not only for the benefit of the planet but to allow those at earlier stages in their careers, or from parts of the world where international travel is less common, to have opportunities instead.
Although universities are slowly beginning to implement green initiatives as a result of pressure on campuses, the norms that rule academic life must respond to the climate crisis threat. Academia is not isolated from the realities of an unstable world, and the effects of conference habits make this glaringly apparent. Changing the way we organise events and disseminate research would acknowledge that PhD students and early career researchers such as myself face environmental futures very different from those of our predecessors. As we progress from a discourse of climate “change” to the realities of climate emergency, every plastic bottle, tote bag and flight matters.
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