Academics must adopt virtual meetings as a climate solution with the same urgency that they responded to the coronavirus pandemic, neuroscientist Chloe Jordan and behavioural geneticist Abraham Palmer argue in an editorial for the journal Science Advances.
While “many organizations have espoused green policies, committing to goals like 100% carbon neutral meetings,” they write, “among the most important changes we can make is to reduce the need for airline travel to meetings.” And the sudden changes wrought by the pandemic point to a pathway that may not have seemed doable to many institutions…until it did.
“As the pandemic continues, virtual meetings are replacing traditional meetings that required air travel, thus dramatically reducing the carbon footprint of these meetings,” Jordan and Palmer note. “Although some features are difficult to replicate online, academics and professionals are becoming increasingly proficient in virtual conferencing tools, such as breakout discussions, digital poster sessions, virtual white boards, real-time chat functions, and informal post-meeting ‘social hours’, thus reducing our reliance on in-person networking for professional development.”
While the pandemic experience is only a few months old, “already many of us have learned enormous amounts about the challenges and opportunities associated with holding online meetings,” they add. “Although none of us wished for it, this pandemic has forced us to rethink meetings and to begin the inevitable process of experimentation, with the requisite successes and failures. These lessons will also be of immense value for our ongoing efforts to reduce travel and thereby address climate change. We must continue these experiments, even when the threat of the current pandemic recedes.”
The two authors acknowledge that it won’t be realistic to hold all academic meetings virtually once the pandemic moves into the rear view mirror. But “when travel is necessary, the distances should be minimized, and professional societies should consider carbon offsets, although they are clearly not a panacea,” they write. Meeting organizers can also select venues based on the steps they’re taking to combat climate change, develop virtual options that are not seen as “less than” the in-person experience, shift smaller sessions and meetings to virtual formats, and set up meetings that are “distributed at multiple regional hubs that are virtually interconnected, such that there is less incentive to travel long distances”.