Public health measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 have put a temporary hold on conventional academic medical conferences. Yet even before the world faced a viral health crisis, academic conferences played a role in aggravating another health crisis – climate change.
Indeed, the climate crisis is poised to impact the health of every child born today and puts at risk the health systems upon which we all depend. At only 1C of average global warming above pre-industrial levels, the health impacts of climate change are already apparent in the increasing global suitability for transmission of diseases like Vibrio and dengue, the rising frequency and ferocity of wildfires and floods that displace and traumatize entire communities and the falling crop yields that imperil global food security.
How much do conferences contribute to the climate crisis? The American Thoracic Society meeting draws 14,000 attendees annually who collectively emit approximately 11,000 tonnes of travel-related carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to the annual emissions of 110,000 people living in Chad. Those flying intercontinentally to attend exceed their entire annual “carbon budget,” which is the level of individual carbon emissions consistent with meeting international climate goals. All told, academic conferences are responsible for hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. This pollution is occurring when global greenhouse gas emissions must peak as soon as possible and then undergo an unprecedented decline to limit warming to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels to minimize the health impacts of climate change.
Population confinement in response to COVID-19 has momentarily reduced global emissions but an emissions rebound is likely. A forward thinking reimagining of academic conferences is therefore required. Such reimagining would take a nuanced approach that thoughtfully considers the various conference functions while working toward a horizon where, as much as possible, virtual conferences are the norm rather than the exception.
Institutions, departments and professional associations should collaborate to develop policies around conference planning that focus on environmental sustainability and equity. The research community must take inventory of the various aims served by conferences including dissemination of research, training, education, networking and policymaking. Each should be critically evaluated to weigh the evidence of benefit for convening in person against the known costs of doing so.
Didactic lectures are likely the elements most easily delivered virtually and would provide both conference participants and organizers with important co-benefits. First, a virtual strategy for didactic content enhances equity in terms of both conference consumption and production. Care work, nationality and finances disproportionately impede women, researchers from the Global South, and less affluent researchers from physically attending conferences. Well-executed virtual conferences circumvent many of these barriers.
Virtual conferencing also enables more diverse voices to not only attend virtual tables but to set agendas at those tables. Without a physical venue, there is no need to rent space, secure catering or hire staff and security. This, in turn, increases the possibility for students, organizers from middle-and-lower income countries and racialized groups that have been structurally excluded to produce content with newly normalized legitimacy. Eliminating spatial barriers and reducing temporal barriers will allow organizations to book diverse speakers from around the globe, making all-white “manels” even more inexcusable. Additionally, overall reduced costs decrease the need for financial support from industry sponsors, decreasing opportunities for industry to influence delegates and thus potentially increasing public trust in the involved professions.
Other conference elements are less easily delivered virtually. Hands-on intubation sessions demand preceptors, mannequins and in-person guidance but these could be delivered with presenters travelling to a reduced number of regional nodes. More challenging is the decision-making and community-building elements of professional associations that often convene at conferences and are dependent upon relationships and trust – both of which are much more difficult to build virtually. These meetings could be held less frequently, with fewer people travelling and with virtual meetings on an interim basis.
For conferences that cannot be accomplished virtually, organizers and participants should follow and refine best practices for minimizing environmental footprints. Conferences should aim to achieve real zero emissions or, where this is not possible, net zero emissions through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets. Promising frameworks for conducting sustainable events exist and have been implemented at large international conferences. For example, the General Assembly meeting of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations held a 900-delegate international meeting in August 2018 and achieved a net zero carbon footprint by following the UN Sustainable Events Guide and purchasing high-quality carbon offsets.
We recognize that we are recommending ambitious changes to how researchers approach conferences. Inertia makes these changes unlikely to occur on their own, no matter how necessary and urgent they appear. While we can hope for those in positions of institutional power to understand and enact policies aligned with the urgent need to decarbonize, health professionals and researchers must be prepared to organize, stand for their principles and demand that departments, institutions and conference planners do their part ensure the enterprise of research “does no harm.” Advocacy will be necessary to ensure that academics adhering to new norms around conference travel are supported and not penalized by their evaluation frameworks.
We recognize that ensuring a habitable planet for future generations will require more than decarbonizing conferences. Climate action at the scale of this problem necessitates fundamental changes to our food, transportation, energy, industrial, economic and political systems. However, changing how we conduct academic conferences can enable a culture shift that will support these grander transformations. Every tonne of carbon matters.
Doing our part as physicians, scientists and global citizens means giving environmental sustainability and equity the serious consideration they have long deserved by pursuing virtual conferences as the norm.
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