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Virtual conference saves 1.2 tonnes of carbon per participant

New research puts a figure on how going online-only significantly reduced the footprint of a major scientific event. 

A study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) looked at data from the ANH (Agriculture, Nutrition and Health) Academy Week, which moved to a digital format for 2020 and 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

crowd of people sitting on chairs inside room

The event, which is held each year in locations alternating between Asia and Africa, saw travel emissions cut to zero, while attendance soared to double pre-coronavirus levels, with more participants coming from low and middle income countries than ever before, jumping from an average of 23 between 2016 and 2019, to 46. The geographical spread of pass holders also grew as a result of the switch. 

In 2019, the ANH Academy Week took place in India, and recorded around 1.2tonnes of CO2 emissions per participant from air travel alone, representing more than 60% of the 1.9 tonnes a typical person generates in the country each year. This fell to zero in 2020 and 2021. 

‘The cut in carbon emissions demonstrated here is stark, and shows that it’s possible to make significant changes to the carbon footprint of a scientific conference by going online, while increasing overall attendance across the world,’ said LSHTM’s Joe Yates, who led the research.

‘While this may seem like a ‘win-win’, it’s important to note that while the switch to virtual eliminated the burden and impacts of air travel for many and therefore increased attendance, the virtual environment can’t overcome all equity issues,’ he continued. ‘For example during our 2020 conference we saw full-day internet outages in both Ethiopia and Malawi; while participation in opportunities to connect and socialise was considerably reduced.’

In related news, air pollution in India’s capital, Delhi, recorded ‘severe’ levels on 19 days between October and January, despite significant measures taken to lower emissions, including the closure of some schools. 

Image credit: Headway

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