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Communications of the ACM


Conferences in an Era of Expensive Carbon

man holds poster featuring carbon-neutral icons

Credit: Rawpixel

A broad scientific consensus warns that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the earth. This is a present-day emergency: the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says a 40% decrease in emissions is needed by 2030 to avoid irreversible damage.10 Reductions on this scale require urgent and sustained commitment at all levels of society—not only national, state, and city governments, but also universities, companies, and scientific societies.

Indeed, scientific societies have an especially important role to play, since, for many members, travel to conferences represents a substantial or even dominant part of their individual contribution to climate change. A single round-trip flight from Philadelphia, PA to Paris, France typically emits the equivalent of approximately 1.8 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2e, or informally "carbon") per passenger.14 This is a significant fraction of the total yearly emissions for an average resident of the U.S. (16.5 tons) or Europe (7 tons).5 Moreover, these emissions have no near-term technological fix, as jet fuel is difficult to replace with renewable energy sources.15


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