The future of the ICMPC: Simultaneous regional conferences?
To protect global climate, flying must be reduced (Wikipedia, Stay Grounded), both in general and in academia (AcademicFlying). For this reason, a new discussion about low-carbon conferencing is emerging in the academic literature (e.g., Astudillo & AzariJafari, 2018; Fraser et al., 2017; Grant, 2018; Kang & Gretzel, 2012; Li & Greenhow, 2015; Neustaedter et al., 2016; Song et al., 2019; Yoshida et al., 2016).
The ICMPC conference tradition belongs to the greatest achievements of the global music cognition community. We hope that the conference will continue to develop in new directions in the future, generating new insights into music perception and cognition.
For that to happen, the conference has to be sustainable; the same applies to conference traditions in every other discipline. Clearly, the future of our children and of humanity is incomparably more important than a conference tradition, if only because such traditions always depend on their social, environmental, and political contexts. We should therefore strive to “kill two birds with one stone", seriously cutting emissions while at the same time achieving our academic goals -- even better than we have done until now.
IPCC has warned that global emissions must be halved by 2030 and approach zero by 2050 if we are to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C. Given the enormity of this challenge and the likelihood that many sectors will not achieve it, we need to consider large emissions reductions of the order of 50-90% for our conferences. Less ambitious proposals may be rapidly superseded.
Identifying and prioritizing the main problem
To significantly reduce emissions, we need to focus on the biggest source: flying.
An economy-class passenger on an intercontinental return flight burns over one tonne of carbon and emits over four tonnes of CO2 equivalent. See any internet emissions calculator, remembering that the total global warming effect is typically twice that of the CO2 alone due to other gases and interactions (Azar & Johansson, 2012). If 100 people fly to a conference from a different continent, as at a typical ICMPC, the conference’s carbon footprint is over 100 tonnes carbon or over 400 tonnes of CO2.
Emissions from flying are orders of magnitude greater than other emissions at conferences. Emissions from flying are measured in tonnes. Emissions from other sources are measured in kg (1 tonne = 1000 kg). The following calculations are very approximate and preliminary (please send corrections):
- Air conditioning for an ICMPC (400 people, 4 days) in a hot, humid location might use 30 kW of electricity for 60 hours, that's 1800 kWh. For electricity from fossil fuels, 0.5 to 1 kg of CO2 is emitted per kWh generated. For the amount of carbon, divide by 3.7. So the corresponding amount of carbon might be 300 to 500 kg. That's less than the emissions from flying for one participant. Seen another way, it's 1% of the emissions of the whole conference. If electricity is from sustainable sources (e.g. solar panels on the roof), emissions from air conditioning approach zero.
- Producing a kg of beef means also producing 20 kg CO2. Let's say you serve 10 kg beef in the course of a conference. That's 200 kg CO2, or 60 kg carbon.
- Producing plastic produces 3-6 kg CO2 per kg plastic. Transport adds a bit more. So including plastic cups at a conference might increase emissions by perhaps 20 kg CO2 or 6 kg carbon. Plastic pollution is a bigger problem, of course.
- The carbon footprint of YouTube is enormous -- some 10m tonnes CO2e per year, or 30,000 tonnes per day. But YouTube is being watched for 1 bn hours per day. If that is true, you have to watch YouTube for 30 to 40 hours to emit a kg of CO2. During a semi-virtual conference, 500 participants might watch YouTube for 10 hours each. That's 5000 hours altogether, corresponding to 150 kg CO2 or 40 kg carbon. Very approximately.
- Information on emissions from different forms of transport is here. Flying produces far more kg CO2 per passenger kilometer than train or bus.
In general and in the long term, air conditioning, meat consumption, plastic, and YouTube are making big contributions to climate change. But in the context of a conference lasting a few days, emissions from these sources are small or negligible by comparison to emissions from flying. The same applies to emissions from train and bus travel. While it is certainly good for conference organizers to avoid meat, plastic, paper, and so on -- it is much more important to avoid flying. As a supermarket chain once advertised: it's the total of the tape that counts.
From a global political and economic perspective, emissions from academic flying belong in the category of "low-hanging fruit": emissions that could be reduced relatively easily.
Preliminary data from different sources (e.g., Achten et al., 2013) suggest that CO2 emissions from flying to conferences represent between a third and a half of academia's total carbon footprint. Emissions from flying also represent between a third and a half the overall emissions of universities and of individual academics.
Moreover, the moral obligation of academics to contribute toward solving this problem is higher than average. We enjoy two relevant privileges. The first is socioeconomic: we mostly belong to the middle class of rich countries, so our carbon footprints are relatively high. Second, our advanced education puts us in a privileged position to understand climate science and its implications.
How, then, can we significantly and sustainably reduce emissions from academic conferences? There are various options.
Reducing the frequency of conferences
We could continue with the conventional format, but less often. The ICMPC has happened every two years since 1989. Why not just reduce the frequency to once every three or four years and leave it at that?
The trouble with this idea is that most of us could attend many more conferences than we actually attend. So if one option is removed, we consider another. Our total personal emissions per year then remain roughly constant. Besides, IPCC projections suggest that we need to reduce emissions by much more than 33%, and do that within the next few years.
Individuals can commit to flying less (e.g. to fly only if invited; ParncuttBlog). Since 2014, the author has not flown to a conference unless invited and meanwhile attended innumerable European conferences by train. All colleagues, but especially those with permanent academic positions, are invited to make such a commitment.
Changes in academic funding policies
Universities and funding bodies could reduce and gradually stop funding for academic flying, while at the same time increasing funding for other aspects of research (cf. Université Neuchâtel).
Removing our own CO2
The global music cognition community can hardly afford to implement new technologies to remove CO2, but we could conceivably plant trees. About half the mass of a tree is carbon, so to get 100 tonnes of carbon out of the atmosphere we would need to plant trees that when fully grown will weigh 200 tonnes -- for every ICMPC. That would include buying the land upon which the trees grow and arranging for the project to be supervised for decades as the CO2 that we created quickly is gradually absorbed. Evidently, we don't have the resources for that.
The time-lag problem applies equally to carbon offsets. The CO2 is emitted quickly and only absorbed decades later, if at all.
Offsets are nevertheless better than nothing. They should be paid at an appropriate level according to mainstream climate research. The companies that receive the funds should be reputable and efficient according to independent evaluators (the situation is different in each country).
Incidentally, carbon offsets were included in the budget of the ICMPC in 2018 for all hubs. The calculation was included in the financial statements forwarded to the regional government in Styria, Austria in 2016. But when it came to settling accounts, the funder did not recognize this obligation and the money was not paid. For future conferences, we recommend either creating a legally binding agreement for funders to pay offsets in advance, or including obligatory carbon offsets in registration fees.
In any case, offsetting is not enough. We must also significantly reduce emissions.
At the very least we need to stop encouraging colleagues to fly, so that if they do fly it is not the responsibility of the organizers. The simplest approach is to give all participants an attractive option of remote presentation. That means:
- including remote presentations at the same level as live presentations in the program (with the same amount of competition from other events),
- using the best available technology to enable high AV quality (during both the one-way presentation and the two-way discussion), and
- adding virtual social events to the program before and after the virtual presentations to help virtual presenters feel integrated.
The organizers of the Graz hub in 2018 will be glad to contribute ideas and technological solutions. Please contact us if you are interested.
The semi-virtual, multi-location conference
The success of ICMPC15-ESCOM10 in 2018, and the lack of successful competing formats for this kind of conference, suggests that the multi-location, semi-virtual model may currently be the most promising for the future of the ICMPC, and similar international conferences in other academic disciplines. An added bonus is the prospect of including colleagues from all over the world in the same conference at the same level, regardless of their financial resources, and improving cultural diversity.
There are two distinct kinds of semi-virtual conferences:
- A global semi-virtual conference has a 24-hour program. Each hub communicates in real time with other hubs toward the East in the morning and toward the West in the afternoon/evening. ICMPC15-ESCOM10 in 2018 was like this.
- A regional semi-virtual conference has a regular program within a given time zone. All hubs are either within or close to this time zone. ESCOM2021 will be like this.
A global conference works best if the afternoon/evening session at each hub begins 8 hours after the morning session. To maximize real-time communication between hubs, the time zones of adjacent hubs should not be more than 8 hours apart. In particular, hubs are needed on both sides of the Pacific rim: in Korea, Japan, or Eastern Australia, and on the West coast of the USA or Canada. The difficulty of finding hub organizers can be reduced by reducing the frequency of the conference to once every three or four years.
It could work like this: APSCOM and SMPC work together to ensure there are hubs on both sides of the Pacific rim. In addition, ESCOM would be responsible for at least one European hub. Each society would be free to organize additional hubs, e.g. East coast of North America. Further hubs would be organized in emerging economies. This is a new approach to academic conferencing that needs to be tried out and experienced before we can evaluate it.
Combining existing conferences
One option involves combining existing conferences with each other. In the past, this has been done without considering emissions. Major regional conferences in North America (SMPC), Europe (ESCOM) and the Asia-Pacific region (APSCOM) have regularly been combined with the ICMPC (e.g. ICMPC-ESCOM every 6 years).
What if we always did that from now on? That way, the ICMPC would always be combined with a regional conference. The organisers would have the option of organizing a semi-virtual conference. The ICMPC should be global according to the above definition, including hubs on both sides of the Pacific rim. But it might be difficult to find hub organizers in those locations for ICMPCs that happen every two years. On the other hand, conferences in regions such as North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific might work best if they follow the regional model for semi-virtual conferences, with the main presentations happening in office hours in a central time zone.
The following idea seems promising because it makes a clear distinction between global and regional semi-virtual conferences, taking advantage of the specific benefits of each.
In the future, all leading regional conferences (in particular SMPC, ESCOM and APSCOM, but also others) could be scheduled to happen simultaneously as equal hubs in a global, semi-virtual, multi-location conference called "ICMPC". That way, the main regional conferences will happen in the same way as they have always happened: participants will be free to ignore the virtual presentations if they wish, and without them the conference will be almost the same as before. In addition, conference participants will have access to live streams of all presentations from all other hubs. Most participants will travel to the nearest hub, drastically reducing average emissions per participant. Between ICMPCs, each regional society might organize a regional semi-virtual conference plus other more local conferences.
Colleagues in regions without a strong scholarly tradition in our discipline, such as India or South Africa, would have the opportunity to create their own hubs and participate in semi-virtual conferences on an equal level with participants from richer countries, opening a new chapter in the history of our discipline. In this way, the benefits of ICMPC15-ESCOM10 (cultural diversity, accessibility, documentation, low emissions) could be maintained and built upon in future ICMPCs.
Reaching out to other academic disciplines
These ideas could be realised immediately within our discipline. Other disciplines with a similar structure (that is, a friendly international collaboration of scholarly societies on different continents) may consider similar solutions.
Academic colleague in all disciplines are invited to follow our guideline for organizing a conference of this kind and take advantage of our offer of technical advice and limited support.
A video documentary about the semi-virtual conference format is here. A webinar that compares different low-carbon conference formats is here (explained here). A talk explaining the new semi-virtual format is here.
Is a change of this kind necessary or desirable?
The answer to this question depends on how one perceives the current situation. Consider the following broad claims:
1. If possible within carbon budget constraints, we should strive to maintain a high proportion of face-to-face contact. This is what people enjoy and it is also where a lot of the motivation and creativity comes from that enables researchers to do good original research. Purely virtual conferences may have their place as a means of communicating the latest research results and there are interesting precedents (more) but their effectiveness is restricted by lack of personal contact.
2. The ICMPC was never intended to be elitist -- on the contrary. But only one in four countries (about 50 out of 200) was represented at ICMPC15/ESCOM10 (in previous conferences, one in five). The main reason for the ICMPC's unintended exclusivity is the cost. Participation (registration + travel + accommodation) typically costs $1-2k per head. This price tag prevents many international colleagues from participating. It also indirectly prevents research cultures in our discipline from emerging in less privileged countries. GDP per capita exceeds $50k in rich countries and is less than $5k in developing countries.
3. Humanity is currently producing enough CO2 for two Earths (Wikipedia: "Carbon footprint"). We are pumping out almost 40 bn tonnes CO2 per year relative to the almost 20 tonnes that the world's plant life can sustainably convert into carbon by photosynthesis. (To get the equivalent mass of carbon, divide by 3.7). Somewhat more than half of this photosynthesis is happening on land (mainly in trees); the rest in the oceans (Le Quéré et al., 2018). Divide those almost 40 bn tonnes CO2 by the global population of almost 8 bn to get the.global mean effective personal carbon footprint, which is about 5 tonnes CO2 per year. Take the 20 bn tonnes CO2 that are absorbed globally every year by photosynthesis and divide it by the global population to get the sustainable individual footprint, which is about 2.5 tonnes CO2 per year.
To stabilize global CO2 concentration (not reduce it), greenhouse gas emissions per person and year must be roughly halved, from 5 to 2.5 tonnes CO2. The smaller figure is unlikely to change much in coming decades -- even if there is extensive global reforestation, geoengineering, and perhaps even deceleration of the birth rate in the fastest-growing countries. There is currently no reasonable alternative to reducing personal footprints to about 2.5 tonnes CO2. We should not hope for a technological miracle that may never happen -- the risk is far too great. Carbon offsetting is interesting but has limitations (Ives & Bekessy, 2015): the negative effect of the emissions is immediate, whereas the positive effect of planting trees is delayed by decades and dependent on unpredictable factors.
Achieving such a low personal annual CO2 footprint will be very difficult. This annual target is comparable with flying just once from one continent to another and back in economy class. It follows that flying must be reserved for emergencies, and many other changes will be necessary. This is not a political demand -- it is merely a logical conclusion based on current climate research.
Given this background, we can ask whether the following claims are correct:
1. Whatever solution we find for the future of our conferences, it is important to maintain a high level of personal interaction, as far as possible within the limits of carbon budgets. Physical contact can be replaced in part but not completely by high-quality virtual (audiovisual) interaction.
2. Cultural diversity is important for the validity of research in general and music research in particular. Anyone in the world should be able to participate in our conferences based only on the quality of their research. Currently, the total cost of participation is excluding many potentially important cultural groups. The problem can be addressed by improving cultural access: either reducing the total cost of participation or funding participants from disadvantaged groups (the first of these two options is more sustainable).
3. Academic conference culture is contributing (via the aviation industry) to a global climatic process that is gradually and irreversibly undermining global ecosystems and political/social stability. All members of our community will agree that a tendency of that kind must be stopped. If we have the opportunity to show "climate leadership", we should take it. The only reasonable option is to reduce personal emissions in the direction of the mean sustainable level, which is 2.5 tonnes CO2 per year. That completely counts out flying -- anything else simply does not add up.
The semi-virtual multi-hub approach addresses all three problems at the same time, but it is not the only way to address them. Other strategies might also be considered.
Placing hubs in low-GDP countries would drastically reduce the cost of travel, accommodation, and registration (all three at once) for participants in or near those countries, allowing many colleagues to participate for the first time.
Organizers of low-GDP hubs may need funding for equipment. Transfers from rich countries of the order of $1k would solve the problem, enabling many new colleagues to join the conference for a price that is comparable with travel expenses for one person.
The cost of running a hub in any country, and hence registration fees, could be reduced by using regular teaching rooms and facilities at host institutions. Several remote presentations can happen in one room if the computers are connected to large screens, headphone splitters, and headphone extension cables, so that several people can watch one talk without disturbing people at the next table.
Academic standards would be promoted and maintained in the usual way. Every hub organiser would have a relevant PhD and relevant publications in leading journals. On that basis, and apart from certain global agreements (e.g. a minimum rejection rate of 10%), everything could be organised independently at each hub, including the review procedure and program construction. The review procedure could also be organised centrally (as at this conference) if there was an advance agreement that the academic standard (i.e. the mean reviewers' grades at cutoff points between talks and posters and between posters and rejects) in "new" regions would be slightly lower than in "old" regions, so that the proportion of talks, posters and rejects was about the same everywhere.
Creating the global program
Programming could be simplified by having all events last for integer multiples of a basic unit. A global timekeeping website would play music at the end of those units, around the clock. The music would start 2 minutes before the end of the unit and stop 1 minute before to give people time to change rooms. The technician in a given room would turn the sound off if it disturbed the proceedings.
There is a fundamental decision to be made at the start. Will the basic unit of time on the program be 20 minutes or 30 minutes? At ICMPC15/ESCOM10, we tried to mix these in one program, but the result was very difficult to manage. The task of managing these overlapping time units would become impossible if the number of conference hubs were increased beyond four.
The following text assumes that conference organizers choose a 30-minute unit. In that case, all regular talk timeslots would be 30 minutes, all keynotes would be 60 minutes, all sessions/symposia would be 90 minutes, and all breaks would be 30 minutes.
Global breaks, during which participants communicate informally by Skype or similar (we used Jitsi), would happen for 30 minutes every two hours around the clock: UTC 0000-0030, UTC 0200-0230, UTC 0400-0430 and so on. As far as possible, all 90-minute units between these breaks would be thematically coherent (with a stated theme, e.g. "musical development") in a given room at a given hub, and comprise for example:
- a session or symposium of 3 talks
- a keynote of 60 minutes (talk 45 minutes, questions 15 minutes) followed by invited commentaries for 30 minutes
- a poster session (60 minutes) preceded by an introduction with speed presentations (30 minutes)
- several workshops or demonstrations running in parallel
To maximize global interaction, the daily program would be separated into a morning and an afternoon/evening session, separated by a long break or siesta. If global breaks were timed as described, and time differences were whole numbers of hours (sometimes they are not, but the problem is easily solved), the work of each hub would be largely confined to fixed time periods in one of the following two patterns (local time):
- 8:30 am -12:00 noon; 4:30 - 8:00 pm
- 9:30 am -1:00 pm; 5:30 - 9:00 pm
According to this plan, work time per day would be 7 hours not including lunch. The structure of each half-day would be 90 minutes working time + 30 minutes break + 90 minutes working time. The 30-minute global break that immediately precedes the start of each half-day could be used for an activity, a concert, or discussion groups. These activities would include global interaction, because they would coincide with breaks at other hubs. Scheduling an activity of this kind at the start of each half-day would ensure that people are seated on time for the main event. This is important because at a semi-virtual conference everything has to run exactly one time.
This plan ensures a reasonable length for the working day: 7 hours. This is shorter than 8 hours at ICMPC15/ESCOM10, and is intended a constructive response to feedback that those days were too long. Enthusiastic conference participants would have the option of participating in 30-minute events happening both before and after each 3.5-hour block, turning these blocks into 4.5 hours and the day into 9 hours.
International timing seems perfect if three hubs are separated by exactly 8 hours (e.g. Eastern Australia, US Midwest, and Europe in July). But a more flexible solution is preferable, in which all continents and all major regions are represented by hubs. Communication works well when hubs are placed quasi-randomly around the globe.
Local programs could be entered by hub organisers to a global spreadsheet (we used Google Docs). After a deadline for entering local programs, each hub would independently choose virtual presentations from the programs of other hubs. Each hub might agree to reserve the last half-day for delayed virtual presentations, to ensure that every presentation at a given hub can be seen virtually at one or more other hubs (checked centrally).
Programming would be further simplified if the time and date of the start and end of the conference at each hub was decided and announced in the call for papers, and all participants agreed at abstract submission to attend the entire conference. That could be justifed as follows. The conference is organized as a service to the academic community. It is complex and time consuming for organizers to accommodate requests to present on certain days; once talks have been assigned to thematic sessions, it is difficult or impossible to exchange two talks without seriously affecting the thematic coherence of the sessions (especially for a multiple-location conference). Thematic coherence is generally improved if organisers are free to place any presentation anywhere. The conference works best for everyone if as many people as possible participate in the real and virtual discussions following each presentation.
During global breaks, Skype appointments can be arranged between people at different hubs. Organizing that is a great task for a student assistant. It could work like this. First, email all conference participants asking whether they would like to participate. Then shuffle the list of willing participants into random order, and pair people off at random. That way, people will meet others whom they would never otherwise have met, which could lead to creative new exchanges of ideas. It is also possible to be more systematic, arranging for senior colleagues in a given subdiscipline to talk to junior colleagues in the same subdiscipline. As Bill Thompson wrote: "In this way, we could kick start the process of genuine intercultural communication and, hence, understanding and collaboration in a way that goes beyond what typically occurs at the old style of international conference."
I hope these ideas are useful for future organisers of similar conferences.
Richard Parncutt, 2018-2019
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