Reducing Carbon Footprint source: science reporter June 2012
Are conferences a waste of time and a drain on the resources? Recently, in the United States, head
have been rolling over since it was discovered that neatly one-million dollars were spent on a
conference held in Las Vegas in 2010 for General Services Administration (GSA) bureaucrats featuring a
mind reader, a clown, a comedian, free bicycles and lavish receptions in resort suites. A recent
editorial in the journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) even questions the utility of
conferences, arguing that "there is virtually no evidence supporting the utility of most conferences."
And then. there is the increasing carbon footprint of conferences in a 2008 report in the British
Medical Journal, Malcolm Greene pegged at some 10,000 tons of carbon for participants attending a
mid-sized international conference. There are also the bulky abstracts, the innumerable fliers and
publicity material for which quite a few trees have laid down their lives and most of which have a
lifetime not more than a newspaper's.
But there are those who argues that meetings and conferences allow people in different areas and
fields and settings to mix leading to fertilization of new ideas, fructification of existing ones and
uncovering of new research opportunities. There are also the opportunities for young scientists and
even students to soak in the academic atmosphere and perhaps a chance that a truly inspiring talk
could catalyze and trigger their creative juices. These are benefits that cannot be denied.
While certainly working on enhancing the academic utility of conferences and meetings, can we not
at least make such events a little less burdensome on the environment and with a reduced climate
impact? There is a worldwide movement towards minimizing the carbon footprint of conferences. And
there are several aspects of conferences that provide this opportunity such as the choice of venue,
registration, transportation, food and beverage services, paper use and waste reduction.
Recently, in a report the American Chemical Society highlighted its efforts aimed at 'sustainable'
meeting, counting among others: a) Reducing carbon footprint of hotel shuttles (to carry passengers)
by 50%; b) Issuing of its meeting programme as a mobile app and PDF download- it claimed that
offering a digital alternative saved 1,600 pounds of paper and associated freight; c) Donating all
usable, uneaten food from meeting events to local community groups; d) Giving attendees reusable
water bottles because bottled water has a huge carbon footprint.
Some of the other climate-friendly practices that are being explored are minimizing waste, choosing
venue that employ energy and water efficient equipment and practices or use renewable energy, using
alternative fuel vehicles for ferrying guests, arranging accommodation for guest at walkable distances
from the venue, and minimizing use of paper and where essential using recycled paper. A compost
programme for all food waste could reduce the amount of waste going to landfill thus cutting down onemission of methane. Hasan Jawaid Khan