Researchers need to get together with each other in conferences to give talks, listen to talks, discuss with others, network, etc. But travel to conferences is expensive and adds substantially to one's carbon footprint.

How can this kind of academic interaction be accomplished remotely, i.e. without traveling? How can remote participation in conferences be set up so as to approach the effectiveness of in-person attendance?


I would like to see someone discuss the choice of location. I got this idea from the answer that mentioned Energy Star. I once visited the Canary Islands and saw political graffiti saying "no more concrete." I wonder if holding a conference in an area with poor urban planning, with explosive building patterns, would have a disproportional effect on local climate, species diversity, populations abandoning traditional farming and migrating to the city and underemployment... these are thoughts that are just starting to form. I hope someone with a better understanding of these things can weigh in. For example, is there a way to relate these factors to the technical component "carbon footprint"?

What about how much food needs to be flown in? For example, a conference held on an island that doesn't lend itself to producing fresh fruit, vs. a venue that can source more locally grown food?

Then there's fuel for heating and air conditioning, and gasoline for getting from the airport to the hotel. I wonder whether conference organizers ever think about any of these considerations....

But I would still like to understand how remote participation can be shaped to yield similar benefits to in-person attendance. Maybe it would help to form some small interest-based subgroups?

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    Some proposals include: carbon offsets, carbon-aware conference location, and conference colocation -- pl-enthusiast.net/2016/06/08/carbon-footprint-conference-travel
    – user2768
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 9:08
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    I would like to see some evidence that airline travel is bad for global warming, more than eating meat and diary, I would like also to see some proof that automatisation is much more better than human contact, We spend days and years in labs and close rooms, conference is only way for us to spent with mindlike people.
    – SSimon
    Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 3:19
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    If I go for a week-long conference in, say, Geneva, I would get a flight from Stockholm to Geneva, over Frankfurt. This would cost around 240 kg. of CO2 (source: calculator.carbonfootprint.com/…) If I, in the same week, decide to eat 200 g. of beef with a side of 10 g of butter per day (on top of my additional meals, which are mostly vegetarian), I would be down roughly 15 kg. of CO2. Substantially less than the flight. (source: timeforchange.org/eat-less-meat-co2-emission-of-food)
    – nabla
    Commented Feb 7, 2017 at 21:02
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    Well, one way is to avoid organizing conferences in huge hotels running A/C at full throttle trying to keep a room temperature of 18 °C in the middle of summer ;-) Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 20:16

5 Answers 5


What about decentralized conferences?

People could meet at two, three or more smaller conference centers instead of meeting at one large conference center (Europe, US, ...). Each researcher would have to travel less. Live streaming of the sessions and discussions would allow a broad participation.

There would be a loss in networking but not completely. Organizing such events might be more difficult but I would give it a try.


Personal, disputable view follows.

Even if you avoid a conference, you save only a few kilograms of carbon. There's millions of other fliers that don't care about it and are travelling at the same time.

The best way to protect the environment is through technological advances: planes that work with eco-friendly fuel, are faster or more effective, better virtual reality technology that allows one to avoid travels, maybe even quantum teleportation and all that kind of stuff.

How do we advance technology? Through scientific research. How do we get it earlier? By advancing scientific knowledge as fast as we can, in the most efficient way. So go to that conference, don't worry about that minor O(1) saving, and do your part to obtain the O(n) or O(n^2) one later on in the history of humanity. Maybe that theorem in homological algebra that you are presenting today is going to be instrumental to quantum teleportation in 100 years.

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    +1 for the illustration with quantum physics and algorithm analysis (and humor).
    – Ébe Isaac
    Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 7:20
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    @aparente001 Drones projecting holograms indistinguishable at sight and hearing from a real human being, and a VR headset to control them remotely. And then, of course, everyone brings their own beer. :) Commented Feb 9, 2017 at 8:00
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    So far, it seems at least equally plausible that advances in technology hurt the environment. Commented Feb 12, 2017 at 13:20
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    s/a few kilograms/a few tonnes
    – Flyto
    Commented Feb 25, 2019 at 10:30
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    Faulty reasoning aside, this doesn't answer OP's question
    – Perry
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 11:13

To set up a new trend, it would be nice to start with a listing of the benefits involved. In addition to reducing the carbon footprints, moving towards digital conferencing would substantially

  • reduce the expenses incurred
  • reduce organizing overhead
  • improve ease of access
  • save time

However, a digital conference may not appeal to the feel of a traditional conference. Also as @FuzzyLeapfrog pointed, it would lead to a reduced affinity for face-to-face networking.

A suggestion I might give to promote this would be to conduct it digitally but with the similar benefits of traditional conferences, such as

  • a chance to get a version published in a special issue of a reputable journal
  • a digital help-desk for any queries
  • chat rooms for each special guest

Environmental sustainability institute propose several strategies for lowering carbon footprint. It can be applied generally in any occasion. See http://cotap.org/reduce-carbon-footprint/

Selected quotes from that page:

  1. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint From Driving some conferences organise excursions for participants and planar speakers, chooice wisely most appropriate transport, and Get a hitch-mounted cargo rack, Tire inflation and other tuning. Properly inflated tires improve your gas mileage by up to 3%. It also helps to use the correct grade of motor oil, and to keep your engine tuned, because some maintenance fixes, like fixing faulty oxygen sensors, can increase fuel efficiency by up to 40%. Avoid traffic. Being stuck in traffic wastes gas and unneccessarily creates CO2. Use traffic websites and apps and go a different way or wait. Misc. Combine errands to make fewer trips. Remove excess weight from your car. Use cruise control.
  2. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint From Air Travel Work Air Travel. Increase your use of video-conferencing tools like Skype and Facetime. What class? Economy class is best, for the same reasons as carpooling and public transportation. Each flyer’s share of a flight’s carbon emissions is relatively less because it’s spread out over more people.
  3. Reduce accommodation and conference place Energy Carbon Footprint Make energy efficiency a primary consideration when choosing a place where conference will be held. Products bearing the ENERGY STAR label are recognised for having superior efficiency. There are many accommodations that claim they are green, eco friendly, self sustainable.
  4. Reduce Your Carbon Footprint From Food Eat locally-produced and organic food. It has been estimated that 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the production and transport of food. Transporting food requires petroleum-based fuels, and many fertilizers are also fossil fuel-based. Cut the beef and dairy. It takes a lot of resources to raise cows, and it’s especially bad if you buy beef from somewhere like Brazil, where it was grazed on land that used to be tropical forest but was cleared for agricultural use. Deforestation is a top contributor to carbon emissions and thus climate change. Go vegan for brunches
  5. Water usage ower the amount of energy used to pump, treat, and heat water by washing your car less often, using climate-appropriate plants in your garden, installing drip irrigation so that plants receive only what they need, and making water-efficient choices when purchasing shower heads, faucet heads, toilets, dishwashers and washing machines. Reuse and recycle. It has been estimated that 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions result from the “provision of goods,” which means the extraction of resources, manufacturing, transport, and final disposal of “goods” which include consumer products and packaging, building components, and passenger vehicles, but excluding food. By buying used products and reselling or recyling items you no longer use, you dramatically reduce your carbon footprint from the “provision of goods.”
  6. Carbon offsetting should not be done in place of taking steps to reduce one’s carbon footprint. Carbon offsetting and carbon footprint reduction should be done in tandem. Measuring your carbon footprint not only reveals where you’re currently at, but also helps to identify areas for improvement and track your progress. Offsetting the amount which you are not able to avoid empowers you to take full responsibility for your carbon pollution, which is your contribution to climate change. In this context, COTAP offers a unique and meaningful solution in that we focus on certified forestry projects in least-developed regions that create life-changing income for the world’s poorest people.

By far the most significant part of your carbon footprint attending a conference is the flight there (if you are flying there). In fact, if I'm not mistaken (I'm no expert on these things), this dwarfs everything else combined.

So if that's what you optimize for, you need to do one of the following:

  • Decentralize the conference
  • Have more local conferences instead of global ones
  • Encourage travel by rail and/or sea instead of by air (yes, it would be much longer)

Now, this might seem excessive to us right now, but just wait a few decades until oil and other combustible fuels are more scarce, and if we haven't developed compact fusion engines for airplanes it might not seem outlandish to expect someone to take a week to get to an overseas conference...

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