Moving meetings and conferences fully online could reduce their carbon footprint by 94%, according to an American study. It's a considerable reduction, and one that's largely due to removing transport from the equation.
Since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, event organizers and companies have been forced to make their conferences and meetings virtual. This shift from face-to-face to online meetings has unsurprisingly brought benefits for the environment. Researchers at Cornell University in the United States have put a number on these benefits. They estimate that holding a conference online instead of in-person could "substantially reduce the carbon footprint by 94%."
Based on several scenarios for face-to-face, hybrid and remote meetings, modeled on the same event -- the 2020 American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) conference -- the researchers have drawn up results showing the variations in carbon footprint according to whether the conference is held remotely or not.
To calculate the most accurate figures, the researchers took into account various parameters, some of which can change dramatically when the event is held virtually. These include food preparation, accommodation, preparation and implementation of information and communication technologies, and transportation.
Transport is a major factor
Transportation is one of the most important factors in the variation of the carbon footprint of such a conference. According to the study, "the 10-20% of participants with the most polluting trips contribute to a substantial portion (20-70%) of the total transportation-induced emissions."
Indeed, "most participants are from the region where the conferences are held," the authors state. But the transportation profile also depends on the city: "a conference location with better train connection to other major cities is capable of allowing more participants to transport by train and thus has more potential of reducing carbon footprint," the researchers note.
A hybrid model
While virtual conferences have many advantages, and remain less intensive in terms of greenhouse gas emissions than face-to-face meetings, the lack of human connection and spontaneity are also parameters to be considered. "For the sake of maintaining more than 50% of in-person participation, carefully selected hubs for hybrid conferences have the potential to slash carbon footprint and energy use by two-thirds," the study concludes.