We Have to Stop Meeting Like This: The Climate Cost of Conferences

A UBC study looked at the carbon cost of conferences and other academic travel. It’s enormous.
By Malabika Pramanik 22 Jul 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Conferences have been a lot on my mind lately. I am at one of them as I write this.
As a member of the Canadian Mathematical Society and a conference organizer, I am always looking for ways to attract both eminent mathematicians and early-career researchers, preferably from as many different corners of the globe as budgetary constraints will allow.
As a mathematics professor at the University of British Columbia, I understand the importance of sending students to events with networking opportunities, where they can learn, showcase their own work and meet prospective employers and collaborators.
You can imagine my incredulity, followed by sinking dismay, as I sat at a seminar recently listening to a presentation facilitated by fellow Peter Wall Institute Scholar Jessica Dempsey from UBC’s geography department.
Seth Wynes and Simon Donner, also from UBC’s geography department, laid out their findings from a recent study (https://pics.uvic.ca/sites/default/files/AirTravelWP_FINAL.pdf) titled “Addressing greenhouse gas emissions from business-related air travel at public institutions: A case study of the University of British Columbia,” published by the Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions.
To say that I was stunned — even horrified — would be an understatement. Climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and eco-friendly initiatives are a common point of discourse these days. I thought I had done my tiny bit by cutting down on plastic, sorting the garbage, composting religiously, turning off switches before leaving the house and supporting the carbon tax.
Guilt had been confined mainly to driving my car. Aware as I was of mathematicians engaged in exploring the consequences of climate change, I had never imagined that my own research activities could have any bearing on the future of the planet.
Yet, the findings are sobering and unequivocal. Air travel emissions resulting from professional travel, predominantly to conferences, are significant.
Wynes and Donner estimate that business-related air travel emissions at UBC total 26,333 to 31,685 tonnes of carbon dioxide emission each year, equivalent to 63 to 73 per cent of the total annual emissions from the operation of the Vancouver UBC campus.
The research looked at emissions by department. The psychology department, for example, had emissions from business-related air travel that were similar to the emissions from heating and powering its building for a year.
In the case of the geography department, which recently switched to a more efficient heating system, the business-related air travel emissions were 30 times greater than emissions from the building.
For the entire university, annual business-related air travel emissions are 1.3 to 1.6 times greater than the total UBC emissions target for the year 2020.
Put another way, the emissions per UBC traveller in this study are equivalent to 10 to 13 per cent of the greenhouse gas footprint of the average Canadian — and 16 to 21 per cent the emissions of the average B.C. resident.
This means that the average person in this sample produced, simply through air travel, at least 16 per cent of the emissions that someone in B.C. creates in their entire annual footprint, including flying, home heating and driving a car.
The study, which analyses business-related air travel emissions using data from 4,804 UBC travellers, found that the average emissions of a professor are three times higher than the average graduate student.
UBC trips are short (median length of five nights), and the most common purpose of trips was for conferences and meetings.
Simple mitigation measures, including eliminating higher class travel (which shrinks (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2010/feb/17/business-classcarbon-footprint) the number of passengers per flight) and cutting brief, longhaul trips, could have reduced emissions by 11.7 per cent while also saving money.
The presentation focused only on UBC. But the problem most definitely is not organization-specific. Curiosity led me to probe a bit more into the environmental impact of large-scale conferences.
Unsurprisingly, evidence was everywhere, once I knew what to look for. In an article titled “Sustainable Science?” (https://ojs.ethnobiology.org/index.php/ebl/article/viewFile/29/27) published in Ethnobiology Letters, authors Alexandra Ponette-González and Jarrett Byrnes found that travel to a single meeting can generate about 11,000 tonnes of CO2.
Ponette-González and Byrnes notes these numbers are at odds with the values of scientists who are concerned about climate change. Like Wynes and Donner, they also talk about the necessity of a cultural shift within academia.
What would such a cultural shift look like? Right now, virtual meetings and large-scale web conferences seem unworkable substitutes for in-person interactions. Especially with the inevitable technical glitches, the lack of interactivity, audio lag, poor video quality and dropped connections.
While the aviation industry races to replace fossil fuels and explores green alternatives such as battery-powered flights, do we sit back and wait for technological innovation to catch up with our expectations?
Or should conference organizers initiate cultural shifts that are within reach, like emphasizing regional participation, while using venues with enhanced information and communication technology for remote collaboration?
But the real issues go deeper. Even assuming that technology breakthroughs for virtual meetings are around the corner, how does one balance the demands for an ethical approach to climate change with the reality that promotion and tenure can depend on part in number of invitations to speak at international conferences?
Additionally, any academic institute or organization that unilaterally aims to incorporate progressive environmental policies into its broader infrastructure risks being at a competitive disadvantage in the current academic environment, at least in the early stages.
Socially conscious academic organizations, such as the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (https://www.lucsus.lu.se/article/lucsuspresents-new-travel-policy-to-reduce-work-related-emissions) in Sweden and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (https://tyndall.ac.uk/travelstrategy) in the U.K. have already stepped up to the plate with strategies to reduce travel emissions.
But these remain tiny drops in a giant bucket. There is pressing need for larger deliberation within the academic community that could lead to global academic policy changes.
Our lives are complex, for the most part a tightrope walk of balancing priorities. Our planet, which supports these lives, is more complex still. Taking actions that benefit the planet often seem to conflict with our personal agendas.
Yet the end goal is clear; the planet must thrive, so that we can. The way to change seems partly obscure at the moment. But change we must.


Hottest Day

Short and eloquent– we need nature’s greenery not our bricks and plastic.

I can't believe it!

It has been England’s hottest ever July day. The air is hot and humid, more like summer in Houston. Becalmed all day, without the air conditioning that is regarded as necessary in Houston, I have to take a walk in the evening, now it is slightly cooler, despite impending rain.

We are lucky that Knutsford has a number of smallish green areas. As I walk I become aware of just how hot and oppressive are the streets around the town, heat emanating from the terraced houses and roads. Entering the parks there is an immediate change of atmosphere, cooler, more breezy. The grassy areas, surrounded by trees, have a different feel again, still refreshing. The small ‘walled wood’ is another perceptibly different environment, completely enveloped and protected by trees. By the lake that is the Moor pool a different quality comes from the relatively cool water.

In short, contact with…

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Money or Health?

Review backs Teck oil sands mine: Jobs, economic benefit outweigh environmental impact, it finds


A joint federal-Alberta review panel is recommending approval of Teck Resources Ltd.’s proposed Frontier oil sands mine, despite finding it would have serious environmental impact and might make it difficult for Canada to meet its climate-change commitments.

In a report released late Thursday, the joint review panel said that the jobs and economic benefits from the oil sands mine outweigh the environmental impact, which include destruction of wetland and old-growth forests and threats to vulnerable species such as lynx, caribou and one of Canada’s few remaining wild bison herds.

“Although we find that there will be significant adverse project and cumulative effects on certain environmental components and Indigenous communities … we consider these effects to be justified and that the Frontier project is in the public interest,” the three-person panel concluded. Alberta was represented by the Alberta Energy Regulator, while Ottawa was represented by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

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Among the findings, the panel said the Teck oil sands mine would be a major contributor of greenhouse gases (GHG), though the company says it would employ leading technology to ensure per-barrel carbon emissions are below those of the average crude refined in North America. Still, the mine would add four-million tonnes a year of CO2 emissions over its 41-year life span, even as Canada pledges to dramatically reduce emissions as part of an international effort to avert the worst effects of climate change.

The panel’s recommendation raises a new political challenge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over the government’s much-debated energy and environment policies. Heading into a fall election campaign, his government has been slammed by Conservatives for failing to defend the Alberta-based oil industry and assailed by the New Democrats and Green Party for approving the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion and falling short on commitments to reduce GHG emissions.

By law, Ottawa has until Feb. 28, 2020, to make a final determination on whether to approve the project, based on a finding that the significant adverse impact in areas of federal jurisdiction are justified.

The review panel concluded the Frontier project, which would produce 260,000 barrels a day of bitumen, would create 7,000 constructions jobs and 2,500 permanent ones, as well as contribute $70-billion over its lifetime to government coffers.

In a release, Environment and Climate Change Canada said the federal regulator will consult with Indigenous groups on the panel’s report, and invite the public and Indigenous communities to comment on potential conditions that could be attached if Ottawa approves the project. “The [environment] minister will consider the results of these consultations prior to issuing a decision statement and any potential legally binding conditions,” the department said in a release.

Teck has concluded benefits agreements with key First Nations in the area, including the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca-Chipewyan First Nation; both communities have been critical of oil sands development in the past but said they needed to protect their interests in the face of likely government approval of the mine.

It’s not clear whether the Teck project will ever go ahead, and the company has offered no timeline for an investment decision. Analysts have argued that new oil sands mines are uneconomic at today’s crude prices, and the industry has been battered by insufficient pipeline capacity that has forced it to rely on more-expensive rail transportation to get its growing production to markets.

The company remains focused on concluding the regulatory process, spokesman Chris Stannell said in an e-mail.

“Any further decisions on the project will depend on factors including our review of the joint review panel report, the outcome of the regulatory process which is not expected to be completed until the first quarter of 2020, market conditions and other considerations,” he said late Thursday.

Pembina Institute analyst Nikki Way said the Calgary-based environmental group was disappointed the panel did not make recommendations requiring Teck to ensure it would set aside funds to reclaim the mine site, and to drive down GHG emissions during its long life. She said it is now up to all national parties to justify the approval of major resource projects such as the Frontier mine to voters in the coming election campaign.

“Climate change is a real threat, and every single party in Canada needs to demonstrate how any approval of a project like Frontier is consistent with our commitments to reduce emissions over the long term,” she said.

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Speak volumes — candidkay

The value of a good mentor can not be overstated,

Robby Robin's Journey

This reblog of CandidKay’s post on mentorship is a worthwhile read for all women and men who work with others, especially in supervisory and leadership roles.  And keep in mind that sometimes (often) people serve in “unofficial” leadership roles by virtue of their wisdom and empathy. Having been mentored by several excellent men throughout my career in a male-oriented environment, I recognize many common threads in her post. Among the most interesting and useful pieces of advice she received are: (1) growing up without privilege gives you an advantage, and (2) stick with people who want to create something good, bigger than themselves, something better.

For those of us who have had the good fortune to be mentored by wise people – men or women – it is up to us to pay it forward. Enjoy the read.

Our first meeting seemed anything but fortuitous. There I was, a newly minted 24-year-old, proudly sitting…

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No Judgement: A tribute to my gym and beyond

No Judgement!

Robby Robin's Journey

There’s a big sign on the main wall of my gym that reminds everyone of one of its main principles, aka core values: No Judgement. [Yes, in the U.S. that would be spelled Judgment!]

Image credit: Fit4Less

Clearly, the message is that we aren’t there to compare ourselves to each other, or to compete for having the slimmest, trimmest body, or the most muscular body, or the most upscale spandex outfit. We’re there simply to work on our own wellbeing. As with recreational running communities, everyone should feel welcomed, encouraged, and celebrated for doing their best to their own abilities. People of all ages, genders, cultures, shapes, sizes, and abilities should be welcomed in the same way. And in my gym, at least, that’s how it feels.

When did this gym thing start, anyway? When I was a kid, the only gyms were in the schools and at…

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My husband’s secret cash stash, and why it was so important

Deborah Schnitzer
Contributed to The Globe and Mail
Published July 17, 2019
Updated 3 days ago

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

We found the tin, a Christmas tin, the second day after your death. It was under the bathroom sink where you housed much of the dialysis paraphernalia, pain killers, many of the hopeless (my word), life-prolonging (your perspective) materials that kept you alive while you waited (17 years) for a second transplant – which failed.
After you died, my cousin and her husband arrived to help. They loved you. I loved you.
We could not find your will. We could not find critical financial information, passwords, a health-care directive, lots of details only you knew.
Bereft, adrift.

The financial adviser advised. There would be a long and necessary (ridiculous) process required to probate if the will could not be found. You were meticulous about many things, almost compulsive. You maintained files with decades of no-longer-useful invoices and receipts, but because you did not want to talk about death you made no provisions for the ending of your life. There were no documents, no conversations. You felt, I think, that if you spoke death’s inevitability aloud (a 24-year chronic disease that had taken you to brinks and back might do that), you would lose your edge and die because you’d laid yourself open, punctured the dike, allowed a breach. You were vague, circumspect. Spelling things out meant you were making space for death, and death had no place in the fight to live which you undertook with an iron will.
But, without the documentation required by the government, we were at loose ends.
We had searched your office. You were a hoarder of proportions I had not guessed and I had lived with you for 48 years. Your office closet hid the underside of a mind bent on every transaction. In this, you exerted absolute control. That relentless deterioration of your physical realm, that life by subtraction, you countered with record keeping of another kind.
Even my youngest child is suffering from ‘empty nest’ syndrome
I learned the hard way how strong pot is today
I’m new to this country, but I see what’s at the heart of all Canadians
For 24 years, I watched you disappear. Bit by bit. Kidney disease. A transplant that required massive doses of steroids to trump outbursts of rejection. A failed transplant. Mutations brought about by aggressive drug therapies and invasive technologies. Cancer. Broken Bones. Stenosis. Pain. Heart failure. A complicated hip replacement. An attempted second transplant. Death.
The forced life on machinery that prolongs the human being, even as it modifies that being’s identity, transforms, without understanding, the battered emotional, psychic, physical and spiritual nature of the altered existence created. The costs for the one transformed proliferate. And costs lead me back to loose change. A tin. How interesting the choice. A Christmas cookie tin. I had seen it there for years, under the sink, beside the toilet paper, the bactericidal wipes and the industrial hand sanitizers. I thought, perhaps, it housed your secret stash of painkillers: the hydromorphone and fentanyl patches you stockpiled just in case.
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You were, after all, a just-in-case child. Your parents had survived the Holocaust, having lost children and partners before they met one another and had you, a 1948 baby. As a second-generation son, you carried their anguish and fear, as well as their hope for a safer world in a new country, which they found in 1958, when Poland finally allowed immigration and they could flee. You thrived, but underneath, the just-in-case child, the one who heard his father’s stories of camp and ghetto, who saw the framed picture of a father’s murdered children, saw the damning effects of a mother’s unrelieved agony for her own murdered child and missing husband. That child lived in you.
In one final attempt to find the will, I discover a bright red folder in a hanging file on my desk, in what I thought had been my own thoroughly ransacked study: “Mendel’s Will.” I had not noticed it before. Opening it, I found your will and a single page, typed with a heading, underlined, in caps: IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR DEBORAH. Financial records, bank accounts, investments, insurance, death benefits and one line which read, “Loose Change’ Bathroom Sink +$1000″.
In the tin, I found $1,000 in rolled loonies.
The tin held, as well, a slip of paper with your recorded deposits into this little private bank, a stay against … what? The tin was too heavy for you to carry – you had withered so, barely able to move, your thin arms palsied, the walker jagged in its advance across the living-room floor. The tin too heavy for me in my own 67th year.
(I learn much later that such just-in-case money socked away is called bintella in Yiddish, a term I try not to forget.)
I have the fund intact in the tin. I think of the money sewn into clothes by mothers frantic to protect their children, money salvaged in camps by guards as bodies rose in gas chambers. I think of your extraordinary courage as one who lived with chronic and incurable disease, who gave to his sons every ounce of the strength he had, wrapped now in the tin box the story of his own fear and ingenuity, thinking that if he failed, when he died, if the banks failed and the world crashed, and the fascists came once more to find us, we might have a little cash to buy our way out, for a little while … perhaps.

He made no sense, this husband I mourn. He tried so hard and he made no sense. But of course, a refugee fighting to stay, dying to live, understanding that maybe loose change might open a crack in a world that can be so devastatingly unkind, well, a refugee like that who discovers freedom in a new country (even if he cannot find a cure) is an agent of change. He is forever on the loose in the hearts that he loves, and that love him so.
Deborah Schnitzer lives in Winnipeg, Man.

Racism, and finding a way forward towards a world based on compassion (rather than on money and power)

Excellent article that forced me to look inward a little more and realize I still have some work cut out for me! Thanks Jane.

Robby Robin's Journey

I haven’t been writing many blog posts recently. Why? I’ve been too worn down by the increasing nastiness in the world, including from world leaders whose words should attempt to encourage every single citizen to feel included, providing them with the best support possible. That’s what enlightened leadership is all about, which sadly seems to be in short supply these days. Some talk the talk, but few are walking their talk to the extent one might hope. And on the biggest stages of all, the talk alone is nothing short of appalling and heartbreaking. I find it hard to move on from, but move on I must.

Last week there was an intriguing opinion piece in Toronto’s Globe and Mail entitled ‘Where are you from?’ In search of my Canadian identity by Esi Edugyan, two time Giller Prize-winning Canadian novelist. Her article reflects on the strength of Canada’s policy –…

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Hurrah for Apollo 11’s 50th anniversary!

The only thing I can add is WOW!

Matthew Wright

It’s a special week this week – fifty years since the beginning of the Apollo 11 mission that took Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins to the Moon. Although dates around the world differ because of the magic of the international date line and time zones, by NASA’s timing they launched on 16 July, entered lunar orbit on 19 July, landed on the 20th, left lunar orbit on 21 July, and landed safely in the Pacific on the 24th.

The mission was hugely risky. In his evocative autobiography Carrying the Fire (1976), Collins figured he would likely be OK, staying in orbit as Command Module Pilot. But he gave the whole mission only a 50/50 chance because his colleagues Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had to come back from the lunar surface.

They were trying something never done before, in the most complex machines built to that time by…

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