Astronomy conferences generated 42,000 tons of CO2 in 2019, virtual or local meetings can help reduce this

The study was conducted by astronomers affiliated with various global schools and some independent researchers.

It found that a total of 42,000 tonnes of CO2 was emitted during 362 open academic conferences and visits to schools by astronomy academics in 2019.

The paper looked at all open astronomy conferences around the world during the year, and given the substantial research of the paper's authors, they are “confident that it is representative of the entire astronomy community”.

The authors compiled information about where these meetings were held, what the average number of participants was, what the average distance the participants flew, and then they calculated the average greenhouse gas emissions of each participant for each conference.

The researchers studied two types of academic meetings – conferences with an average of 128 participants, and schools with an average of 54 participants.

The total amount of CO2 emissions, 42,000 tonnes, was calculated based on information about where most of the conference participants were coming from. The researchers also found that the average global round-trip travel emissions per conference attendee was 1.1 tonnes of CO2.

“For context, the average per capita carbon footprint in Africa in 2019 was 1.2 tonnes of CO2,” read the paper.

Astronomers also estimated that the total distance traveled by their community to conferences in 2019 was equivalent to 5,650 times the circumference of the Earth.

Average emissions per participant vary depending on the type of conference and its location. For example, European “schools” had lower emissions per participant than European “conferences”, but emissions in the US were almost the same.

Emissions also varied depending on the type of participants at each conference – Asian schools included more local participants, and therefore had lower emissions than their European counterparts.

According to the study, local participants were those who traveled less than 200 km for the study.

Also read: Climate change is changing the way we speak. and that's a good thing

What is the solution?

The purpose of the study was to assess how the astronomy community directly contributed to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change through their conference visits.

The paper's abstract states that they “want to make comparisons with other academic fields, and also come up with future reduction strategies”.

The main solution proposed by researchers after the study was to move to virtual sessions for most conferences, but they acknowledged that this would not be possible for all conferences.

Instead, he proposed reducing long-haul flights as much as possible, as they contribute the most to CO2 emissions.

According to their calculations, only 21 percent of the total trips made by all conference participants were long-distance trips, but they still accounted for 61 percent of total CO2 emissions.

Instead, researchers suggest that conferences could take place in more central locations that are accessible to most participants, rather than in exotic or “return-worthy” locations.

He gave the example of a conference in Australia that resulted in the highest per capita CO2 emissions, because 105 of the 115 participants were from outside Australia.

Based on an analysis of participants and travel locations, the study estimated that if the same conference had been held in Central Europe, emissions would have been reduced by 50 percent or more.

The authors further acknowledged that holding the conference in Europe or the US would be a disadvantage to participants from other regions of the world, but to address this they also provided other options for holding academic conferences.

In the case where sessions cannot be entirely virtual, the paper suggests that rather than having all participants gather in one place, conferences should be divided into regional centers where people can physically gather and Then can connect together virtually. This will reduce the amount of long distance flights people take, while still keeping the networking aspect of conferences alive.

The authors also calculated different scenarios where participants would meet in centers across North America, South America, Europe, and East Asia for the American Astronomical Society's annual conference and found that this would reduce emissions by 70 percent.

Recognizing the logistical constraints of organizing virtual and hybrid conferences without compromising the essence of networking at these events, the paper said it would be a “worthwhile impactful effort” if it would reduce carbon emissions in the face of climate change.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also read: Even if emissions stop, climate change could cost global economy $38 trillion per year by 2050: Nature study

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