New study quantifies carbon footprint of online conferences

One of the benefits of the rise in online and hybrid conferences during the pandemic has been a decrease in the carbon footprint of these events compared with face-to-face conferences.

But a new study has quantified just how much of carbon footprint gap there is between online and traditional face-to-face events.

Grant Faber, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, analysed the carbon footprint of a virtual conference last year that brought together researchers interested in carbon removal and sequestration. The conference consisted of six hours of large Zoom meetings.

He included emissions associated with the computers, monitors, and desk lights used by conference attendees, in addition to video streaming during the conference and search engine queries and website visits made as a result of the conference. He also added in data from online pre-conference planning meetings.

His research found the conference generated the equivalent of 1,324 kg of carbon dioxide emissions, with 64 per cent of emissions stemming from network data transfer, 19 per cent from the pre-conference planning meetings, and 11 per cent from computer use during the conference.

His reported his findings in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, concluding that a face-to-face event would have generated 66 times the emissions from flights alone.

“While virtual meetings and conferences are generally far superior to physical gatherings in terms of emissions, there is still a considerable amount of emissions that can be attributed to virtual activities,” he said.

“We can calculate these emissions, and individuals, companies, and governments can take action to reduce them.”

But he warned against complacency with online events, saying there were still plenty of steps that could be done to reduce their carbon emissions even further, such as switching to renewable energy sources to generate electricity.

“There are projections that say by 2030, information and communications technologies may use more than 20% of the global electricity supply,” he said.

“And as time goes on and more and more people become connected to the internet for more energy intensive activities, such as Bitcoin mining, they’re only going to use more and more electricity.

“It’s important to know the true cost of our online behaviors and, by quantifying it, we can take action. As an example, our AirMiners conference was able to estimate our impact and purchase carbon removal offsets to make the event carbon negative.”