Should We Just Stop Flying to Conferences?

CC BY 2.0. The view from seat 27K/ Lloyd Alter

It really isn't necessary but it sure is a lot of fun. I am conflicted.

The Passivhaus movement is growing all over the world, and the people behind Passivhaus Portugal are very active, running a conference every year in Aveiro, a small city between Lisbon and Porto. I did a presentation by video last year which was evidently well received, and this year they asked me to come in person.

I did so knowing that it was silly, putting big heavy cement overshoes on my carbon footprint to speak at a conference about reducing our carbon footprint. But there is something about meeting people in person, and I had never been to Portugal.

high speed train in Porto

High speed electric train arriving in Porto/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It got still sillier when I flew Easyjet from London to Porto, paying less for the fare on a two-hour plane ride than I did for a two-hour train ride from Aveiro to Lisbon.


Cestaria is the one in the middle/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I loved Portugal. The food was wonderful, the people are friendly and warm, the cities are models of walkability, and did I mention the food? I loved running along the beach in Costa Nova, (and staying in a Passivhaus) and climbing the stairs in Lisbon.

Lloyd talking

© Hugo Cunha via twitter

Having participated two years in a row in the Passivhaus Portugal conference, I can attest that being there and meeting everyone and seeing the other presentations is a whole lot better than phoning it in. I learned a lot, made some great connections and came back refreshed, excited and intellectually stimulated.

But I can't help feeling that it was an illicit pleasure, that I can't justify the carbon footprint, particularly given the topic being discussed at the conference. This, while I am trying to decide about going to next year's Passivhaus conference in China! Is it better to go, to learn, to talk, to exchange ideas, or should I stay home? But I have submitted an abstract for the China conference and if it is accepted, will be presenting a paper. Is this not too great an opportunity to miss?

Many in academia are starting to say no, it isn't. One group led by Parke Wilde of Tufts University is trying to get academics to stop flying, noting that they fly a lot more than the general population:

Many university-based academics fly much more than 12,000 miles per year. We have faculty colleagues who diligently limit their environmental impact in many areas of their lives, but not their flying behavior. For an academic professional who eats comparatively little meat, commutes by public transportation, sets the home thermostat at a reasonable temperature, and drives a fuel-efficient car, unrestrained flying behavior easily may be responsible for a large fraction of his or her total climate change impact.

This is absolutely the case for me. I do all of the above, bike everywhere in town, and flying is by far the biggest component of my climate footprint. And flying is even worse than just the carbon.

They do not consider the enhanced impact due to the release of aviation emissions at high altitudes, where they influence climate change through the process of “radiative forcing.” This radiative forcing may multiply the climate change impact of flying by a factor of 3. The more conservative adjustment factor used in the CoolClimate Network calculator from the University of California Berkeley to account for radiative forcing is 1.9, meaning that the full climate change impact of flying is approximately double the direct impact of the greenhouse gas emissions. After accounting for this issue, some estimates suggest aviation is responsible for 5% of global human climate change impacts.
steps in Lisbon

Steps in Lisbon/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Parke Wilde notes that many academics worry that if they don't fly, they won't get the exposure they need and it will hurt their career: "They feel pressure not to miss the same events that other people in the field are attending." But he also notes that not going to conventions gives one more time for research and writing. This is certainly true; I promised my editor that I would keep working while I was away, but I was too busy walking and going to museums and eating great food and drinking fine port to actually meet my work commitments. Overall, I would have been a whole lot more productive if I had phoned it in.

Over a decade ago, George Monbiot wrote about the difficulty of convincing people that they shouldn't just hop on a plane and fly.

When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.
Costa nova

The stripy houses of Costa Nova/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But it is so easy. The economic craziness that makes that Easyjet flight cost 30 pounds is part of the problem, a reverse incentive encouraging people to fly instead of taking shorter, greener trips. In gorgeous Costa Nova I was told that people from Lisbon don't come there anymore because it is cheaper to catch a plane and vacation in Tunisia. There is a giant economic distortion happening here that makes flying so cheap.

When we had a beer after my talk in Lisbon, conference organizer João said he hoped I would come back for next year's conference. I would love to; it is such a great way to mix work with play. The flight isn't too expensive and the food and the hotels are cheap. But I am beginning to think that in all of these events, the carbon cost is just too high.

What do you think? Do the benefits of travel to conferences outweigh the carbon cost?

Should people stop flying to conferences?