Published online 11 December 2003 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news031208-13

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Scientists contribute to greenhouse-gas emissions

Meeting delegate chides conference-hopping climate experts.

Each AGU attendee typically flies a 8,000 kilometer round-trip.Each AGU attendee typically flies a 8,000 kilometer round-trip.© GettyImages

Many of the 10,000 scientists attending this week's annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) study climate change. Collecting them all in San Francisco undoubtedly increases our understanding of global warming, but it releases more than 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, pointed out one of this year's delegates.

"The typical round-trip travel for an AGU attendee last year was almost 8,000 kilometres," said Lawrence Plug, who studies permafrost at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.

Using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Plug and undergraduate Borden Scott estimate that each scientist released 0.16 kilograms of carbon dioxide for each kilometre he or she travelled by plane. In other words, each was responsible for almost 1.3 tonnes of the gas.

This is a tiny fraction of total human carbon dioxide emissions. But each attendee's contribution for just this one meeting is equivalent to one-sixteenth of the average American's yearly emissions, and one-seventh of the average for Britain or Japan. Many researchers attend several such gatherings each year.

"Scientists travelling to meetings are a part of the market that drives the number of flights scheduled," Plug told the meeting. "We should have more awareness than everyone else in the market. Personally, I think it makes me more culpable."

Fellow delegates agreed, but said that they would still attend meetings because face-to-face scientific exchange is invaluable. "Maybe I'm not doing the right thing by weighing my convenience over the greater good," admitted Peter Selkin of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. "I think it's a little better to drive if you have two people in a fuel-efficient car, but I don't always have a whole day to do it," he said.

Plug suggested that scientific organizations do something to offset the consequences of the air travel involved in research, such as preserving a chunk of Brazilian rainforest each year. Other scientists are lobbying for increased virtual conferencing.

Moveable feast

Scott and Plug also worked out what the total emissions would have been if the AGU meeting had taken place in one of 60 other major US cities. Holding the conference in Denver, Colorado, "would give us a 7.7% reduction in emissions", said Plug.

“Maybe I'm not doing the thing by weighing my convenience over the greater good”

Peter Selkin
Scripps Institution of Oceanography

The same calculation for the Ecological Society of America's meeting last year in Tucson, Arizona, revealed that moving that meeting to Omaha, Nebraska, would have given a 14% reduction in the 3,140 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions attributable to the attendees. 

Scripps Institution of Oceanography