As an academic, should I worry about my conference carbon footprint?

(The Guardian, 11 Jun 2019) A recent international conference was an opportunity to network, but I feel guilty about the waste and emissions.

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.

External link

The Guardian, 11 Jun 2019: As an academic, should I worry about my conference carbon footprint?