World leaders are seen on a screen as US president Joe Biden delivers his remarks during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on Thursday
World leaders are seen on a screen as US president Joe Biden, centre, delivers his remarks during a virtual Leaders Summit on Climate on Thursday © Getty Images

By holding this week’s climate summit online, the US defeated the biggest paradox of such events: they generate vast volumes of greenhouse gas.

But what is the carbon impact of international conferences for the individual business traveller? And what reduction in emissions can they achieve by opting to attend virtually? Lex ran the numbers for the first in a series of weekend articles on personal carbon budgeting, a subject brought to the fore by growing concern over climate change.

For international conferences, air travel is by far the biggest contributor. That depends on distance travelled and type of flight: per passenger emissions of private jets can be at least six times higher than commercial aircraft. But even the average participant’s flights might generate a whopping 2.3 tonnes of carbon emissions, using a 2018 climate conference as a benchmark.

How the carbon footprint of a virtual climate conference differs from a physical one. Graphic showing Emissions per head generated by a 12-day conference/tonnes of CO2

There will be emissions associated with local travel too. Some hotels are within walking distance, but the carbon budget could be significant in cases where the delegates have to stay as much as 10 miles from the centre. Assume, as for climate summits, the conference extends over 12 days. Crawling through congested traffic by car twice a day might emit a total of 200kg. The carbon-conscious traveller could cut the emission to just a tiny fraction of that by using an electric bus. A passenger on a full 90-seater electric bus generates just 6g per mile, according to researcher Mike Berners-Lee.

The choice of hotel also matters. Staying in a particularly extravagant hotel can generate 25 times the carbon emissions of a frugal one. The Lex calculation factored in 30kg of carbon per night for one with average eco-credentials. It also included 0.1 tonnes of carbon as a contribution to the heating and electricity used by a conference centre over 12 days.

Joining a conference virtually implies a much smaller carbon footprint. The biggest contributor might be extra heating and lighting, if needed, for a home office. That could account for about 30kg over 12 days, based on figures from consultants WSP.

The share of a computer’s life cycle emissions should also be counted. If 500kg of carbon is emitted in making a computer that lasts four years, the conference use might account for roughly a 100th of that. The carbon emissions associated with using the computer — largely down to networks and data centres — are much smaller, contributing just 1kg over 12 days.

Totting up the carbon involved in a virtual conference comes to a total of 36kg. If instead, the conference was attended in person, it might generate 82 times that volume. The total — nearly 3 tonnes — comes to about a third of the annual average emissions of citizens of industrialised countries. Cutting down on conference travel would significantly reduce some individuals’ carbon footprints.

Lex is interested in hearing from readers. Will you return to in-person business conferences? Have you attempted to calculate your own carbon savings over the past year? Please let us know in the comments.

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