Get that meeting right

Get that meeting right

Author: Richard Smart (INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Torino)

INAF-GREEN have produced a simple list of recommendations for reducing the environmental impact of meetings. These can be found in the GREEN website under Documenti/Raccomandazioni. We encourage all people in INAF to follow the ideas and provide feedback for improvements.

The first recommendation is to enable remote participation without any penalisation, for example speakers must be in-person. While remote participation has it drawbacks in terms of interaction, the last few years, with the pandemic, has shown us that online or hybrid meetings have a number of important advantages over purely in-person meetings:

  • They allow attendance by astronomers who cannot easily travel, e.g. due to visa issues, child care duties, or disability.
  • They allow attendance by astronomers from countries with limited astronomy funding improving equality[1,2,3].
  • They make attendance and interaction easier and less stressful for people with disabilities, speech impairments or simply low confidence. The relative anonymity of remote attendance also reduces discrimination.
  • Generally remote attendees have a carbon footprint orders of magnitude below an in-person attendee [1,2,3].

Astronomical research often requires the use of large infrastructure in remote locations and in space; as a result has a larger carbon footprint per person than many other, if not all, hard sciences. However there is also evidence that Astronomers have a larger per person impact for conference travel as shown in Figure 1 from a survey of French scientists [1]. 

Fig. 1 Average distance traveled by plane in 2019 by discipline of respondents from here.

This maybe because Astronomy is historically more global, we have more conferences, etc. Whatever the reason, should this be confirmed elsewhere, it is an activity that Astronomers should critically review. Given astronomers’ possible over-propensity of conference related travel, maybe the first question all potential meeting organisers should ask:
Is a proposed in-person meeting really needed?

Another recommendation discusses the organisation of local catering and coffee breaks. Following the discussion in our last newsletter on the impact of animal vs. plant based food we encourage meeting organisers to make vegetarian options available and to organise coffee breaks with environmentally friendly providers. When possible any use of single use disposable cups, plates and cutlery should be avoided.

We make recommendations for the selection of gadgets (don’t have them), publications for the meeting (use electronic notices) and the fate of conference materials (reuse them). Finally, we recommend that all meetings make an estimate of the carbon footprint of the event, that this is shared with the attendees, and carbon credits are purchased or trees planted to counteract the environmental impact.

This may all seem an excessive overhead, but we are sure that it will eventually be mandated by our Government to meet the zero carbon goals. We are just anticipating the curve as would be expected by a community that should, more than most others, understand the science behind the recent IPCC warnings.

In this respect the Ethics Committee of the French CNRS has published an exceptionally clear statement on environmental issues, highlighting for example that “… taking into account the environmental impact of research should be considered as part of research ethics, in the same way as respect for human beings or animal experimentation”.

It’s time we in INAF stepped up.

Postscript: After releasing our recommendations the Astronomers for Planet Earth group independently produced their own recommendations. It is encouraging the similarities. 

Ultimo aggiornamento: 25 Marzo 2024, 11:54