Greener conferences

By Dr Charlotte Rae

Conference season is upon us, and this year lots of us will be attending virtual meetings instead of travelling to conferences in person.

Although many of us are missing seeing our colleagues in person, online conferences can have a number of benefits, from inclusivity and better accessibility, especially for those with caring commitments or visa difficulties, to the carbon saved by not having thousands of academics flying around the world.

I recently attended the online Organization for Human Brain Mapping meeting. The last time this conference was in person (Rome, 2019), the carbon emissions from all the participants’ travel added up to around 3,500 tonnes of CO2. That’s roughly 636 elephants!

Klower et al (2020, Nature) undertook a comprehensive assessment of how much carbon is saved by online conferences compared to in person, and it’s a staggering amount – you cut carbon by over 99% if the meeting is fully online (see figure).

Source: M. Klöwer (2019)

Looking forwards, many of us will want to retain the benefits of both online and in-person meetings. Klower et al highlight a number of ways this could be achieved sustainably, from hybrid meetings, where you choose to be either in person or online, to hub-and-spoke conferences, where there are multiple locations and you travel to your nearest hub – combining the benefits of seeing colleagues while reducing the amount of intercontinental travel that comes with the highest carbon costs.

The pandemic has forced us to consider alternative conference models, but the ongoing climate crisis means that we need to reshape the way we do academic meetings in the longer term. If your society isn’t taking action on creating a vision for a sustainable post-Covid meeting, ask them what their plan is. If you want any advice, get in touch with me ( – in the OHBM Sustainability group I chair, we are currently producing an action plan for OHBM and also have lots of resources on our website.

Dr Charlotte Rae is the Faculty Green Officer at the School of Psychology at Sussex and the Founding Chair of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping’s Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group. Charlotte also leads the Adaptive Behavioural Control Lab, which researches the processes by which how we feel (interoception) influences how we behave (action).

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