One of the aspects of being a PhD student that almost everyone loves (if they get the funding for it…) is the need to travel to attend conferences. You get feedback (and hopefully praise) on your work, get new ideas, hear about the cutting edge research in your discipline, meet and network with fellow scientists and see a new city, country or even continent.
And in case of the AGU Fall meeting, which advertises itself as the largest earth and space sciences meeting, with over 20.000 attendees, all of this is certainly the case.
However, getting there exposes the key hypocrisy of many aspects of climate change research. Transport is responsible for around 20% of CO2 emissions, and air travel is among the heavier emitting modes of transportation, especially compared to for example electrified railways.
So what options does a climate researcher (or any other climate conscious individual) have?
The easiest and most obvious option is of course to simply stay at home. This certainly is a laudable option when thinking about getting drunk on Mallorca or at a local bar in Graz, but a certain amount of travel should be “allowed”. After all, why try to save a world that you do only know from the TV-screen anyways?
So, let’s look at the second option: Take a better vehicle. Personally, I like to bike to work, and well, attending a conference in San Francisco is work, but Google Maps can’t calculate a route, so that’s not going to work. And the train? Unless things like hyperloop become a (subsea-) reality, that is also not going to work or take too long, with the 2000 km shorter trip to Beijing taking 8 days, for comparison. (However it does work for the 2nd biggest geosciences conference.)
So there is no way around flying. One easy option is to simply book some CO2 compensation with your flight, which is nowadays an easy option with about most airlines. And it is surprisingly cheap. In my case, an additional 15€ on top of a 700€ ticket, or, in other words: a 2% price increase for the flight alone, and significantly less, when comparing it to the full trip, with conference fees, hotel, and so on. Is it the one, simple solution that allows everyone, to fly everywhere without any influence on the climate? Unfortunately it is not that easy, but it is a start.
Another thing to consider is trying to reduce the weight of the plane as much as possible. But besides losing some weight, there is not much us customers can do about it. Or can we? Our demands for lower prices cause the airlines to stuff ever more people into their planes, so the dreaded lack of space in economy is at least doing the climate a (little) favour.
And the final, and most important point is, to make the most out of the CO2 you are emitting!
Don’t only visit the two sessions you are interested in, and then head back home, stay the full conference, and learn as much as you can, even if it is insanely taxing, at a mega-conference such as the AGU (but at least there is good beer included).
Don’t only do the one day city trip your conference might offer, combine it with a full holiday. So instead of flying to San Francisco and Mallorca at some later time, fly to San Francisco and Las Vegas, saving over 1000km of air travel. Oh, and I of course only went to Las Vegas for work related stuff, like seeing Hoover dam, and one of the impacts of the Southwestern US drought…