Virtual solution to carbon cost of conferences
Sir - Every year, many thousands of scientists jet off to a host
of destinations all around the world to attend conferences. Emissions
of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, from air travel are growing
at an alarming rate. In 1992, at 500 million tonnes, they constituted
about 13% of all CO2 emissions from transportation sources. By
2050, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates
that aircraft emissions will triple to 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2
During the past few years, an increasing number of conference
organizers have recognized this pollution problem and have attempted
to mitigate their climate impact (see, for example, http://www.fhio.gc.ca/commuting/carbon_neutral.htm#Conf_guide).
Some recent environmental conferences have aimed to offset the
greenhouse-gas emissions caused by their participants' travel
by funding tree-planting schemes. Others strive to be entirely
'carbon neutral', sourcing their electricity from renewable sources,
and others even buy carbon credits to offset conference-related
emissions. Now, a new technology, the Access Grid system (http://www.accessgrid.org),
is promising to change the face of our conferencing habits.
Access Grid is similar to video conferencing but lets groups from
numerous different locations communicate among themselves at one
time. Instead of only being able to see the speaker (a limitation
of traditional video conferencing), delegates can also see and
talk to other groups of delegates - in the next town, in another
country or on a different continent. Speakers can manipulate their
presentations to all viewers simultaneously so that, as each one
moves through the slides on his or her own screen, all the viewers'
screens are also updated.
A key aim of Access Grid is to solve the problems faced by many
researchers in the developing world, who are prevented from attending
international conferences by economic constraints. There is, however,
a significant start-up cost of around US$25,000 for the technology,
and few locations in the developing world are currently able to
meet the requirement of Access Grid conferences for broadband
network access (greater than 1Mb per second minimum bandwidth).
Several international conferences have already successfully used
the Access Grid, with many more such meetings planned and an ever-growing
number of institutions able to co-host conferences. The huge environmental
dividend of virtual conferencing is demonstrated by the estimate
for a recent genomics meeting, where travel-related CO2 emissions
of the order of 900 tonnes were avoided (http://www.ndsu.nodak.edu/virtual-genomics/Proc_VCGB2002.pdf,
or see W. A. Valdivia-Granda, E. L. Deckard & W. Perrizo Proc.
Virt. Conf. Genom. Bioinf. 1, 1-3; 2002).
The combination of this new technology with ever-improving video
and sound (for example, Hewlett-Packard's new Coliseum immersive
teleconferencing system) means that the old objection - that virtual
conferences are impractical and impersonal - is rapidly breaking
down. Though many of us may feel it is unfair to deprive ourselves
of all-expenses-paid international trips and the outside-meeting
socializing common to most conferences, we should not ignore the
environmental impact of these meetings. 'Real world' conferences
will always have a place, but given the huge number of international
conferences, even limited use of Access Grid virtual conferencing
has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by many thousands of
David S. Reay
School of Geosciences, Ecology and Resource Management, University
of Edinburgh, Darwin Building, Mayfield Road, Edinburgh EH9 3JU,