How to make conferences more climate-friendly

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 14, 2021

In the Board of the Human Development and Capability Association (HDCA), where I’m currently serving as past-president, there has been an intensifying of the debate on the climate consequences of the annual conference. The HDCA is an international association of mainly academics, though it also attracts policy makers, activists, and others, who are interested in the human development approach (best-known from the UNDP’s Human Development Reports) and one of the main theoretical frameworks underpinning it, the capability approach.

The essence of the tension is clear: there is a significant cost in terms of greenhousegas-emissions of flying to another corner of the world to attend a three-day conference; greenhousegas-emissions need to be reduced as drastically and fast as possible in order to protect the climate, and a stable climate is an important precondition for human flourishing/human development. So what should an organisation such as the HDCA, or its individual members, do with this tension? Clearly, all academics still flying to conferences should ask themselves this question. Hence, let’s open up the discussion here, and see what insights (or good ideas) you might have.

There is some low-hanging fruit that any organisation can start with, such as making any lunches or dinners at conferences plant-based, which is better for the environment (let alone animal welfare and accommodating religious diversity). Perhaps no longer printing hard-copy programs, as was often done in the past, is also an easy change with ecological benefits. But although I do not have the numbers, my sense is that these are drops in the ocean of the environmental cost of an academic conference; the biggest environmental cost seems to be the aggregate transport to the event, in particular air transport, compared to transport by train (in Europe at least, many trains run on green energy, which drastically reduces the environmental/climate cost of international travel).

A bigger question is whether these conferences should simply totally move online. The COVID-situation has forced us to experiment with this; the 2020 HDCA conference which was scheduled to take place in Auckland moved online; and the 2021 conference scheduled in Antwerp was replaced by a series of online events as part of what was called ‘The Global Dialogue’. In both cases, lots of valuable interactions took place; but I think we would be lying to ourselves if we were to ignore/deny that something valuable is also lost by the move to take it fully online. Discussions at real-life events (not just during the actual program, but equally important during the breaks and early mornings and evenings) are, in my view, different – they have a depth that I have not yet seen in online discussions. Moreover, there are a range of types of discussion that I simply see not happening online – the informal conversations that by their very nature are about topics that one doesn’t (easily) talk about in larger, let alone more formal, setting. Those often provide graduate students and junior colleagues with relevant information on the field that they would otherwise miss out from.

Also, some conference organisers, including the HDCA, have facilitated that conference participants could visit local projects, places, people ect. that were particularly relevant for their research and in general for their flourishing as a scholar. There is no way you can replace these experiences/visits online; the question is instead whether these are weighty enough reasons to justify the air travel pollution.

Then there is the big factor of networking: it hardly happens online. Of course, one might argue that we should create these networking opportunities online, and I agree that we should try, and certainly not resist from the outset or because we are negatively prejudiced towards trying to create them online. But two caveats: first, I increasingly get headaches and other forms of physical/mental discomfort from spending very long stretches online. I haven’t searched for the science, but I don’t think we are the type of animals made to talk to a screen and listen to a screen for hours. Second, I don’t think these online networking opportunities will ever be able to reach the same quality as real events. That’s not a good excuse for not trying to make them as good as possible, but I think we should not assume we can make them as well as interactions in a shared physical space can be.

Another consideration is that academic conferences bring together people who have different degrees of scholarly standing and power; this is especially important for those who are not working in (or part of) the academic center of gravity. If you work in an environment with limited (material, intellectual) resources, the relative benefit of physically attending a conference can be so much bigger than if you are already so lucky to have intellectual powerhouses visiting your university on a frequent basis, let alone that you are so lucky that those intellectual powerhouses simply teach entire courses at your university. There is not only a Global South/Global North dimension to this, but even within the Global North there are huge differences between different universities (and although my information is more limited about this, I think the same holds for universities in the Global South, which are also very diverse in this respect). In other words, what is lost and gained if we were to abolish all physical conferences and move everything online will be quite unequal. But it is not entirely clear to me who will, on balance, benefit, and who will lose out – except that anyone who benefits from emissions reduction would win if we would all fly less.

All of this should also be brought into perspective: why do we, academics, think that our work is so important that we are justified to fly (to conferences, some even for commuting to work), when at the same time there is a call on citizens in general to fly less for holidays? Is attending an academic conference so much more important than a family who are working all year round, with little luxuries in their lives, taking a holiday in a nice place? [I am not answering these questions; I do not know the answers.]

So what should we do? Based on conversation with friends and colleagues (with a special shout-out to Andrew Crabtree), I came up with the following list of ideas:

  1. Only go if it’s worth it: If you fly, then only fly when the trip “is worth it”. That means: try to get the most out of it. Try to see whether you can reach out to other scholars in advance; see whether you can add another academic event to your trip (e.g. visit to an archive, giving a paper somewhere at close distance, offer to teach or mentor at the place where you go to, etc.). If we do this, we might also be able to attend fewer conferences a year (and hence travel less = emit less).
  2. Take the train or bus if you can: If you can attend a conference by taking the train rather than flying, do so (there might be countervailing reasons, but still, try). There are online tools that allow you to make the comparison between different modes of transport, such as Eco Passenger for travel within Europe (please add links in the comments section for good online tools for other continents, or globally).

  3. Conference organisers can help with (1), e.g. the HDCA always organises meetings from (independently organised) working groups that work on regional or disciplinary or topical questions; it also always organises a Summerschool for grad students the days preceding the event, and facilitate the organisation of other related scholarly events.

  4. How about making conferences regional? Would it be more environmentally friendly if we only flew in a few “powerhouse scholars” who would fly (if need be) to those regional conferences, rather than many scholars and graduate students travelling across the globe? This seems certainly a model worth exploring. But “regional” may be deceptive, since flights within one large continent may be producing more emissions than flights between two coastal cities on different continents, each at the other side of an ocean (say, Amsterdam and New York).

  5. Off-set: if we fly, we should off-set our emissions. Andrew Crabtree, the HDCA’s former Treasurer, compared a few years ago the different off-set organisations, and came down to recommend the Board to have the travel of the organisation’s manager, as well as our journal’s editor, being offset by Atmosfair. It’s interesting to fill in some destinations on their website’s calculator, just to become aware of how incredibly polluting flying is, compared to (a) other forms of transport, and (b) what our ‘fair share’ of global greenhousegas-emissions might reasonable be.

  6. Take actions to narrow the global knowledge gap: An important reason why those in disadvantaged places have a reasonable claim that they want to attend conferences, is because there is a huge knowledge gap globally – think of access to journals, books, human capital. If that knowledge gap were smaller, there would be less of a need for those who are disadvantaged by the knowledge gap to seek knowledge by means of, e.g. attending conferences. Publishing open access is one way to degrease the global knowledge gap (and, needless to say, there are non-climate reasons to decrease the global knowledge gap; we should contribute to narrowing the knowledge gaps, whether there’s a climate emergency or not).

  7. Invest in technological infrastructure: one thing the pandemic has accelerated, is investments in technology/infrastructure that makes online conferences better. Universities should give all their employees a large monitor, a good camera, and a good microphone; the cost of this is peanuts compared with a flight, but often the flights can be reimbursed from research projects/funds, but the technological infrastructure cannot. So we should lobby our universities/employers to make this available; and as long as there are colleagues in the global South first of all need stable electricity and wifi supply before they can join an online meeting without having to worry about the supply of electricity or the excessive costs of wifi, see what can be done to address that problem.

  8. When judging CV’s (e.g for job applications or research projects), give online presentations the same status/weight as physical presentations. That will not only be good for the climate, but also for those with other reasons not to travel, e.g. extensive family care duties.

I think in the end it then becomes down to each of us weighing those reasons; but the emissions calculator for flights makes it clear we should take the negative climate impact of flying very seriously.

Some might object that this “Consumers, let’s change!” approach is deeply deceiving, since the main problems with emissions are structural, and we should be political about this and focus on the big polluting industries. I agree that, yes, we should focus on the big changes, and the big polluting industries; but I don’t think we should use the latter as an excuse to not do what we have to do as persons. In the future, as soon as we can fly in a non-polluting way (and I can’t wait for this moment to happen!), the analysis will change completely; but as long as (long-distance) flying cannot be done without causing a lot of greenhousegas-emissions, we must really think carefully before we fly.

What are your thoughts?



Chris Armstrong 12.14.21 at 7:35 pm

On 8, I’ve just stopped noting on my cv and annual review documents whether a talk was online or in person, and can’t see any reason why everyone shouldn’t do the same – not just during the pandemic but forever.


Trader Joe 12.14.21 at 9:58 pm

I think the list you have come up with is very pragmatic and a sensible approach which balances sensitivity to the issues but likewise appreciates that elimination of human interaction and the sharing of knowledge is cutting off ones nose to spite the face relative to the impact that reducing traveling academics can actually have on climate change.

Realistically if every academic conference for the rest of time was cancelled or moved on line it would likely be the equivalent environmental impact of closing China for about a day. As you note, it doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t try (and many do), but a sense of proportion is also necessary. Those who want to do the most can choose to stay home, those who find value can make the best and most responsible use of the opportunity (as they should do anyway).


John Hopkins 12.15.21 at 4:38 am

Stop flying to conferences. It’s simple, and necessary. We cannot live as we have. Careers or no careers (there will not be careers in the future, there will only be struggles to survive). A ‘career’ built on conference showings is one conceit among several million that already flog the planet mercilessly. Just stop.


notGoodenough 12.15.21 at 9:48 am

I generally agree with the OP, and think the discussion is sensible and important to have. As a rushed thought (I’m afraid that the end-of-year deadlines are upon me, so apologies if this is trivial or nonsensical):

“Discussions at real-life events (not just during the actual program, but equally important during the breaks and early mornings and evenings) are, in my view, different – they have a depth that I have not yet seen in online discussions. Moreover, there are a range of types of discussion that I simply see not happening online – the informal conversations that by their very nature are about topics that one doesn’t (easily) talk about in larger, let alone more formal, setting.”

I certainly have a feeling this is true. On the other hand, I do wonder if that is simply a function of the nature of the way online conferences seem to be conducted right now. I realise this is highly personal and subjective “anecdata”, but so far those I have attended seem to have mostly just shifted the presentations online (often with an online Q&A for each presentation). Perhaps others with different experiences can chip in, but what seems (to me at least) to have not been transferred online is the “chatting over the coffee break” and “having a look at posters and asking the student what they are doing” bits.

I wonder if any conferences have tried to replicate these other parts – for example, with a Discord-style thing one can connect to where you can browse through abstracts and DM the people, and with general “chat channels” people can dive into or out of in various topics as the crop up (I’m not particularly software-savvy, but perhaps those who are know if such a thing exists or is even possible). I’d be interested to learn if this has been tried, and if so what the pros, cons, and results were…

I wonder, then, if such issues are less intrinsic, and merely a function of not having developed the right online tools yet? I’ve no idea – it would be good to hear from someone who has more understanding of this field.


notGoodenough 12.15.21 at 9:53 am

As a PS: I should add that I have no wish to give the impression I think my “Discord-style thing” is a good idea, or even a sensible way to address what appears to be missing. It was merely intended as an example of the vague thing I have in mind as a possible tool that may be missing, not as a suggestion for what such a tool should be!


Ebenezer Scrooge 12.16.21 at 12:10 am

I’m an old guy. I know everybody in my field (currently) worth knowing, so I don’t need no steenkin’ conference. But there are a lot of newbies who will be worth knowing, and whom I don’t know. It’s even harder for them to get to know me, and they’re the future of my field. They would benefit from meeting the old farts.

Ingrid’s points are reasonable. I would weight them heavily by conference audience. The more newbies, the stronger the argument for going live.


justsomeguy 12.16.21 at 12:49 am

Not just conferences. I have relatives that are likely to die within the next few years. This may sound heartless, but leaving aside “comfort their spouse or child”, why fly across the country to attend a funeral, when it could be made available virtually ? For that matter, weddings and other family events too.


Colin Danby 12.16.21 at 6:40 am

I still remember a lunch with the late Anne Mayhew, sometime in the mid 90s, at the Eastern Economic Association. I was a grad student, shyly tagging along with a group. Mayhew delivered a series of unguarded comments about other economists that changed how I thought about doing scholarly work. Other conferences over the next decade helped me find a niche for my research and find my people, find mentors. Some years later at another event I got an extended conversation with Sandra Harding walking to dinner, something that would never have happened any other way.

That’s the part I’m not seeing how you replace online. Panels and roundtables and plenaries can be more or less reproduced online. But conferences, especially small to medium ones, are super-helpful when you are starting out and needing those lateral connections, a chance to join conversations.


Seyhan Aydinligil 12.16.21 at 11:56 am

Rather than huge Conferences, I would want to see a series of online seminars each year with focus on HD topics of interest and with working papers made available beforehand to all registered participants. These papers can be written by key experts and/ or interested authors and be disseminated so as to enable active interaction and comments during the online event.
There is also the question of the language gap. While the HDCA has a large international membership, those from the English speaking countries are more actively present and conversant in all its activities/ events/Conferences. Perhaps a region based, more focused and a small group half day seminars online could bridge this gap to a certain extent and ensure a more frequent and effective participation of those members with English as their second language and from less developed countries who could not be as conversant and afford at the same time the high cost of flying to attend these Conferences in the past years.
Dr.Seyhan Aydinligil
Independent Consultant
Former UNDP and University Lecturer
Social Policy and Development


David J. Littleboy 12.20.21 at 12:13 am

What John Hopkins said.

Anything else is suicidal and insane.

We should be seeing passenger miles flown in 2020 as excessive. Ditto for 1990. But passenger miles flown had been going up 10% a year, pretty much every year (except 2008, when it held steady) for like forever. Look up how many people flew into Australia every month in 2019. It was seriously insane.

Also, the next time, it won’t be a disease that kills 1 or 2% of patients, it’ll be something like Ebola. Flying is insanely stupid on a multitude of levels. (And yes, it was flying that caused this mess to get out of hand so quickly. (I originally wrote “caused this mess”, which is, IMHO, correct, but I decided to tone it down.))

Whatever, it’s simple. Flying is bad. Get over it. And get used to it.

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