A new study has found that moving conferences online can cut their carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. And hybrid events, in which some participants attend in person while others attend online, could reduce carbon and energy by two-thirds by taking measures like carefully choosing a location and only serving plant-based foods.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on work patterns, Mongabay News reports, with more professionals are working from home due to health and safety concerns and local restrictions. The pandemic has also forced the trillion-dollar events industry to undergo a fundamental shift as many organizers move conferences from physical halls to online platforms like Zoom.
Shifting conferences online can be a significant change for those accustomed to interacting with their peers while nibbling canapés in auditorium hallways. But a new study published in the journal Nature Communications argues that keeping conferences virtual or employing a hybrid format, in which some participants attend in person while others attend online, can be a productive strategy in mitigating climate change.
In 2017, business events alone involved 1.5 billion participants from 180 countries, contributed US$2.5 trillion of spending, and 26 million jobs, according to a 2018 study by Oxford Economics. A report by Allied Market Research projected that the events industry will grow from an estimated $1.1 billion in 2019 to $1.5 billion by 2028.
Before the pandemic, the global conference industry accounted for 0.138 to 5.31 billion tons of CO2 equivalent (GT CO2e) per year, or the same as the annual greenhouse gas emissions of the entire United States, said Fengqi You, co-author of the new study and a systems engineering professor at Cornell University.
“There are significant carbon emissions incurred in the event industry globally,” You told Mongabay in an emailed statement. “We believe shifting conferences fully or partially online can slash a considerable amount of global carbon emissions.”
According to the new study, moving conferences from meeting halls to online platforms can reduce their carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. The little carbon and energy that is still emitted during virtual conferences stem from things like home electricity consumption, and it’s just a fraction of what’s emitted during a full in-person event.
The study also found that a hybrid system could reduce a conference’s carbon footprint and energy use by two-thirds while maintaining more than 50% in-person participation. Conference organizers can help reduce an event’s carbon footprint and energy by doing things like carefully choosing a hub destination that makes it possible for in-person participants to only travel a short distance, or choosing to only serve plant-based foods, the authors suggest.
While many professionals have complained of “Zoom fatigue” after spending countless hours on online platforms, 74% of the 900 respondents to a poll conducted by Nature in 2021 agreed that virtual conferences should continue after the pandemic. The main reason was accessibility, followed by lower carbon footprints and costs. The primary reason for not wanting to continue virtual conferences was the poor networking opportunities.
You said he personally attended numerous virtual and hybrid conferences during 2021, and that while he missed in-person interactions with colleagues, the online formats worked “quite well” for him.
“I saved time by [not] traveling to the conference venues/locations and avoided some potential logistics hassles in finding hotels and accommodations,” he said. “I am glad that the ‘avoided’ transportation steps could help with climate change mitigation in general. Yet, I found that conference organizers were required to put in more effort to organize online/hybrid events due to the new way of operations.”
One conference that adopted a hybrid approach was the IUCN World Conservation Congress, which took place in Marseille, France, in September 2021, after the pandemic delayed the original conference date in 2020. There were 5,700 registered participants in person and 3,200, as well as 25,000 public visitors, IUCN said.
“Overall, it proved to be a very good solution, because it maximized the event’s accessibility,” Marc Magaud, the organization’s head of global convenings and events, told Mongabay in an emailed statement.
“It allowed those who were able to travel to Marseille to gather in person, which remains very important according to the participants’ feedback we received through a comprehensive survey. It also made it possible for those who could not make the trip to have a voice in the Congress,” Magaud explained. “Going forward, as the technology—and our ability to use it to its fullest extent—improves, we think this model will increasingly become the new standard for major environmental conferences.”
You said he hopes the new study will help raise public awareness about the climate benefits of shifting conferences online or adopting a hybrid format. He added that moving conferences online can help reduce 0.13 to 5 GT CO2e, equal to 0.3% to 14% of global carbon emissions, which can help the world meet targets crucial in mitigating the worst effects of climate change.
“The 2021 IPCC report indicates that if no reductions are made, the remaining carbon budget of 300 to 350 GT CO2 to remain with 1.5℃ [2.7°F] global warming will run out in 8.3 to 9.7 years,” he said. “The reduction from virtual events can extend the deadline by around 1.5 more years.”
This story was originally published by Mongabay News as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story. Thanks to The Energy Mix alum and “event sustainability solutionary” Shawna McKinley for first pointing us to the post.