For those in a rush, here is the conclusion already:
EGU is doing great efforts to become more environmentally friendly, but the huge issue of any conference lies in one aspect: participants flying there… Could we, participants, rush into the train next year?
I would not have realized all the evolutions of this year’s EGU2019 General Assembly if they had not been told to me. And that was precisely one of the goals of the evening session on “The carbon footprint of EGU’s General Assembly” led by Susanne Buiter, Jonathan Bamber, and Alberto Montanari (1). Since many of us couldn’t enjoy this in live, here is a summary in two acts: (i). What has been done, (ii) What could be made better.
I’ll conclude about air travel and groups that organize to limit it.
What has been done
A series of measures have been taken this year, some of them discrete or barely noticeable, but with a tremendous impact:
Carbon Offsetting programs:
For two years now, all participants are offered to offset their CO2 emissions related to the conference during the registration process. In 2018, support was given to a project to reduce deforestation in Brazil (2, 3). Donations allowed to support for about 4.251 tons of CO2. In 2019, participants could choose between 3 projects in Indonesia, Uganda, or Kenya. Whereas this is not the ultimate solution to make the General Assembly greener, it should be a mandatory transition for what cannot yet be perfected.
Printed Programme book:
The printed Programme book of 190 A5 pages was NOT distributed to the 15.000 attendees anymore. Instead, everything was available from the app and on the website. In case you felt a slight discomfort about it, I’m sure you’ll be happy to realize how many pages that makes, together with 15,000 metal spiral bindings. Also since 2019, the daily newspaper “EGU Today” went all online, saving around 15,000 double-sided A4 printed pages.
Actually, if you are a long-time regular attendee, you may have noticed that the full printed Programme book of 800 A4 pages stopped already back in 2007, whereas the initiative of distributing the Programme on USB sticks ceased after 2011.
This year, the floor of Hall A (a surface of 2.890 sqm) was kept free of single-use carpets.
– if you missed it, here is a post about single-use carpets from our blog: “EGU’s lost strata” (4).-
This is a great reduction of ca. 15%, but keep reading to know about what could happen to the remaining 17.230 sqm! Currently, the single-use carpet is down-cycled for noise-absorbent mats for cars and house building. The reason that the poster halls need carpet is for reducing the high noise levels. EGU is investigating options to reduce the noise in a more environmental friendly manner.
Those 30.000 water PET bottles distributed in 2017 were replaced by water fountains in 2018, when we all received refill-bottles during registration. This year’s idea was even easier and effective: bring your own bottle to refill at the fountains.
Vegetarian lunch bags:
During the division meetings and lunchtime events, all meals were vegetarian. Yes, eating vegetarian is good at least for the climate (without entering into the subject of the benefits for your own health, the well-being of animals, or the fascinating book from Peter Singer revisiting our ethical bases (5) in 1975). I am very convinced that most attendees did not miss the ham sandwiches, and that even meat-lovers were happy to taste the vegetarian falafel option. Yes, even a meat-eater can enjoy a vegetarian meal. More about vegan lunch comes below.
-Since 2018, a reduction on the train ticket was put in place to attend EGU-Vienna by train departing from Switzerland (a 25 CHF discount for a return ticket). This initiative was rated as very successful by the Swiss train company (SBB) based on the response rates, an excellent result that might convince other companies around Europe to join. The extension of a similar scheme to some other national railway companies has unfortunately not been successful yet. The idea of reserving special EGU trains has also been investigated but seems fairly complicated due to administrative regulations, the need to reserve a track path 2 to 5 years in advance, and would require a substantial safety deposit.
Returning beer bottles:
-About 40.000 beers were served in returnable glass bottles this year. It only depends on us to return these empty beers to the collecting boxes that can be found everywhere in and around the building.
What could be made better
In the forthcoming years, several other changes might come up to improve our environmental impact and use of consumables:
That’s my favorite! Where possible, single-use carpet was already removed this year. However, our poster Halls in the basement are installed in an underground parking, so some noise reduction and embellishment are needed. What if the carpet was not thrown away at the end of the week but re-used? I’d love to pay the small extra cost that it would induce (7.32 Eur per attendee).
A provision of 108,000 paper cups was prepared for the 2019 General Assembly. We the attendees could actually bring our own coffee mugs! I personally had not even thought about it until other participants suggested it to me (although EGU had a #EGUmug competition on twitter to raise awareness). A nice gesture from all of us next year?
“I want to ride my bicycle I want to ride it where I like“. Queen’s wish from 1978 should become real in 2020 at EGU: We should get a facilitated access to “City Bike Vienna” (6) and bike parking sites at the conference center.
Vegan lunch bags:
A choice of vegan lunch bags at lunch-time events could be provided. It is hard to guess how many attendees are vegan because of the huge span in numbers between countries and studies, together with a bias that veganism is more of an affluent (elitist) phenomenon (7)… Independently of this, a vegan food option could comply with the diet needs for a few hundreds of attendees, it might well lower the carbon impact of EGU, and it is enjoyable even without following a vegan diet.
Streaming and videoconferencing:
Currently EGU webstreams union-wide sessions, such as the Union Symposia and Union medal lectures. A possible future for EGU would be to webstream more sessions and even allow speakers to give their talk remotely as a videoconference. Saving a flight from Sydney to Vienna would spare 2.37 tons CO2… (8). Remote attendance may need a registration fee to cover the costs of webstreaming and rental of the conference centre. This might also be attractive to the very busy geoscientists or those having teaching duties during the General Assembly. Of course, an important reason for attending conferences is meeting colleagues and networking. That, unfortunately requires travel, and here is where we as participants have a responsibility.
Green meeting certification:
The Austria Center Vienna (ACV) hosting the General Assembly offers support and provide free green meeting certification in compliance with the Austrian ecolabel (9). A short term goal for EGU could be to achieve the mandatory criteria to be met in nine areas and become certified as a green meeting.
Condemn air travel
The EGU and Copernicus teams are doing large efforts to go greener. This is great, but let’s admit it: the one huge CO2 weak spot of a conference lies in the travel impact of its attendees. Flying is “the most carbon-profligate activity (per hour) humankind has thus far developed”… This is why EGU is trying hard to encourage the use of train (see above). But do we actually need any support to take the train? No, this is a self-motivated, moral choice, and several groups of scientists have already organized to condemn air travel by researchers:
-A petition currently received >1800 signatures for their “Call on Universities and Professional Associations to Greatly Reduce Flying” (10) with >600 of the signatories being researchers. The petition is anchored to a blog providing information and resources around the issue (11). Please sign and spread it as well!
-The “No fly climate Sci” was created by Earth Scientists and groups around 290 biographies of academics and non-academics that decided to reduce their travel by plane (12).
-In France, the recently created group “Labos 1.5” promotes clean practices in Science (13). They published their seminal text in the newspaper “Le Monde” (12), the latter also publishing other tribunes about scientists’ addiction to kerosene (13).
-As a member of the University of Bern (CH), I acknowledge to be in a very privileged situation. It is a huge pride that the majority of our lab took the 10 hours train ride to attend the General Assembly (>20 persons). The University of Bern dissuades air travels; our travel reimbursement forms state that “Flying has to be limited to the unavoidable and CO2 emissions have to be compensated* (14)”. If you are part of a lab that similarly fosters environmentally friendly practices, please share your experience in the comments!
These examples of initiatives show us one fact: things are moving, less and less scientists accept to plead the importance of their work to destroy the environment. We feel the “flygskam” (15). It’s time to change our practices. And in case this text is troubling you, it is probably not going to be the last one: the flood of millions of high-school students supporting Greta Thunberg is about to join the ranks of our universities.
*In German: “Flugreisen sind auf das Notwendigste zu beschränken. CO2-Emissionen sind grundsätzlich mittels eines Klimatickets zu kompensieren, dessen Wahl in der Kompetenz der Organisationseinheit liegt. Die Kompensation ist über Drittmittel zu finanzieren.”