Academic Carbon Footprint

A hectic term’s just ended, but the health crisis has not. And yet I’ve just received an invitation to participate in a conference to be held on another continent… Mottos such as “new normal,” “new reality,” and “coronavirus will kill capitalism” are proving to be wrong. The conference in question is typically an American one, with indecent fees which mainly pay for using luxury hotels as venues. Moreover, accommodation, meals, and a couple of flights (one of them transatlantic) need to be paid, either with public money (research funds) or out of the scholar’s pocket. And all this to speak for 20 minutes (at best) in a two/three-day seminar.

The average cost of attending such a conference is around 2,000€, which means every minute of the presentation is worth 100€. Seriously? And what about the health implications of two transatlantic flights five days apart? But there are way more important issues to take into consideration – carbon footprint. The carbon footprint of both transatlantic flights is 1.532 tons of CO2, 0.07 ton for each minute of the presentation. Money doesn’t pay for this amount of contamination. According to the website Carbon Footprint Ltd., one can offset these two transatlantic flights by paying 29.17€ to plant trees in the UK, or 21.49€ to plant native broad-leaved trees in Kenya. (It seems trees are cheaper in Kenya.) There’s another way to make the impact of two transatlantic flights more meaningful for our understanding. In January 2020, the city hall of Murcia offered inhabitants free means of transportation – buses and trams – for two days to reduce contamination. Murcia has around 454,000 inhabitants. During both days, contamination decreased by 3 tons, the double of CO2 my two flights would have produced.

Don’t take me wrong. I’ve attended many such conferences in a single year. But I won’t any longer. I aim to participate in one conference per year provided I can combine it with teaching in a nearby university and research in nearby libraries and archives. But even this is an unlikely goal shortly due to the health crisis. Meanwhile, technology offers us many alternatives which are both eco-friendly and affordable.

For a more detailed list of suggestions to reduce the carbon footprint of academic travel, see this wonderful piece by my admired colleague Caroline Levine.

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