Practice what you preach, and preach what you practice

Environmental scientists struggle to reduce their carbon footprint. UQ’s Dr Matthew Holden says this provides lessons for all.

We have all been urged to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions for decades, as a way of avoiding runaway climate change.

One way to do this is to reduce the amount we fly. Air travel is a major source of carbon emissions. Roundtrip flights from Sydney to London total 35,000 kilometres. This trip emits more carbon than the average Australian motorist emits from two and a half years’ worth of driving.*

But few of us regularly zoom around the globe to sip piña coladas on tropical beaches. For many Australians, flying is a part of our job. In 2014, more than two million Australians took at least one flight for domestic business travel. This raises the question: can we reduce our flying if our jobs demand it?

Just like business people, scientists also face this question. We fly to conferences to present our research, collaborate, and advance science. But it seems hypocritical for scientists, especially those of us in environmental research, to be flying around the globe to discuss new cutting edge ways to save the planet.

One option to reduce our own environmental impact is to create sustainable events that reduce and mitigate environmental damage. Science conferences can easily become paper and plastic free by sharing information, such as programs and promotional material, electronically, and by only offering reusable cups, cutlery and plates. Catering can be sourced using sustainable practices focused on local plant-based foods.

Perhaps most importantly, events can invest in a carbon offsetting project. This would see event coordinators paying an organisation to replant or protect carbon-absorbing forests. Ideally, the small financial cost (often less than five percent of the cost of attending the meeting) would not be the responsibility of participants to purchase, but rather built into the ticket price. We don’t have the choice to opt in or out of suffering the consequences of climate change, therefore paying to mitigate the damage we (or our jobs) cause shouldn’t be a choice either.

All of the above options can easily be incorporated into any large gathering, not just academic conferences. However, if scientists don’t follow these guidelines, how can we expect corporations, and people in general, to adopt them?

While scientists have been calling for sustainable conferences for nearly ten years, in our experience of attending conferences in fields as diverse as ecology, math, computer science and astrophysics, relatively few meetings have provided us opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint. Looking to find out how common our experience was, my colleagues and I analysed the conference websites of 116 academic conferences across 18 scientific disciplines and 31 countries. 

The results of our study, recently published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, show that few conferences have taken any action to lessen the environmental impact of their meetings. The key findings were:

  • Only 4% of 116 conferences assessed advertised carbon offset options
  • Only 9% of conferences advertised any sustainable practice to mitigate or lessen the environmental impact of their meeting
  • Sustainability Science conferences were no exception: 0 out of 10 advertised carbon offsets and only 1 out of 10 advertised any action that could be classified as a component of sustainable conferencing
  • Ecology & Conservation was the only field where carbon-offset options were common place – but still, only half of conferences in this field advertised sustainable practices

We need to practice what we preach, and then preach what we practice. Science meetings are only a minuscule blip when it comes to global carbon footprint. The real benefits come when corporations and the general public come on-board. However, we in the science field need to be shining examples for this to happen.

More information about this study can be found here.

*These calculations assume the following:

The average Australian motorist drives 13,800 kilometres each year. Comparing the carbon emissions of driving and flying is difficult, but research suggests that driving and flying have similar emissions per kilometre per passenger if we assume there is only one person in the car. However, if carpooling, flying is even more harmful compared to driving. So the “roundtrip Sydney to London trip = 2.5 years of driving” will vary depending on driving habits. This is meant as a rough estimate.

Last updated:
5 September 2017