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This figure from the European Environment Agency compares greenhouse gas emissions per person for different modes of transport; see also Wikipedia.

Climate change

The global mean temperature in 2016 was 1.1°C above the pre-industrial level, breaking the previous record from 2015 (World Meteorological Organisation, 2017). Although most countries agreed to limit the temperature increase to 2°C in the landmark 2015 Paris agreement, the opposing political and economic forces may be stronger (Bodansky, 2016).

Changing temperature and precipitation patterns will affect most human social and economic activities (mobility, trade, tourism, etc.), triggering regional conflicts, (forced) migration and increased mortality rates, especially for social classes that are less able to adapt for financial or health reasons (Field et al, 2014; Zhengelis, 2015). Proximate causes will include extreme weather events (posing serious risks to humans, ecosystems and endangered species), rising seas, salination of agricultural soils, more frequent or intense heat waves (wet-bulb temperatures approaching body temperature), longer droughts, deglaciation affecting water supplies, expanding deserts, forest dieback, more frequent or unprecedented forest fires or flooding, ocean acidification, and accelerated loss of biodiversity (species extinction) on both land and sea. Developments of this kind may interact with each other (e.g., ecological cascade effects), and climate forcing mechanisms may self-reinforce (positive climate change feedback), leading to "runaway" warming. Long-term extrapolations and order-of-magnitude estimates suggest that the past, present and future emissions of a billion people in richer countries will eventually cause the premature deaths of a billion future people in poorer countries (Nolt, 2011).

The role of aviation

Aviation is responsible for about 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but other greenhouse gases and additional factors such the elevation at which emissions occur and the different atmospheric lifetimes of GHGs in the atmosphere mean that aviation is contributing about 5% to global warming. This contribution is steadily increasing, both absolutely and relatively. When all GHGs and their different effects are considered, the contribution of one economy-class seat on a long-haul intercontinental return flight is comparable with driving a car to and from work for a whole year (calculate flight emissions here). Both cases are equivalent to burning roughly one tonne of carbon or emitting roughly 3.7 tonnes of CO2. If the carbon budget was distributed proportionally, the aviation sector would have to reduce emissions by 14% per year to achieve the Paris 1.5°C target.

The easiest and most effective way for "frequent flyers" to significantly and immediately reduce their individual carbon footprint is to reduce the distance flown per year or avoid flying altogether. The other main options are eating less meat, driving less, and having fewer children (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). Remarkably, frequency of air travel is not correlated with general environmental awareness (Kroesen, 2013), suggesting that even the environmentally aware are susceptible to denial.

The academic contribution

That "conference tourism" is environmentally problematic has been clear for a long time (Høyer & Næss, 2001). A case study of a typical science PhD student (Achten et al., 2013) found that mobility represented 75% of emissions (of which conference attendance 35%) and infrastructure 20%. Video conferencing could have reduced emissions by 44%. Flying may represent between 20% and 50% of all emissions produced by a university, depending on location and research focus. Flying from one conference to another on different continents may be an example of "binge flying" (cf. Cohen, et al., 2011); individual academic careers may benefit more from staying home and writing journal articles. 


Coroama, Hilty and Birtel (2012) estimated that a multi-hub, semi-virtual conference could reduce travel-related greenhouse gas emissions by 37% to 50% relative to an equivalent single-location conference. At ICMPC15/ESCOM10 we aim to halve carbon emissions per participant. Additional advantages of ICMPC15's multi-location format are:

  • Travel costs will be reduced for the average participant, and hence for universities that fund conference travel.
  • Inclusion in the program will depend more on academic quality and less on financial resources.
  • The number of participants will increase, as will their cultural diversity. Opportunities for meeting possible future collaborators with specific backgrounds, skills or motivations will improve.
  • Passive or active participation will become easier for colleagues with reduced mobility.
  • The conference will be more global in character.

Participants are asked to travel to the nearest hub and avoid or reduce flying if reasonably possible. Participants who do fly may consider reducing the number of take-offs, replacing part of their journey with surface transport, or combining the trip with a holiday to reduce average daily emissions. Another option is to consider yearly personal emissions and reduce the total in other ways. We also ask conference participants to sign the #flyless petition. 

Working on a laptop is easier on a train than a plane, and night trains can be convenient. Time and money can be saved by avoiding trips to and from airports, early check-ins, security checks, and baggage carousels. Sometimes both conference and holiday travel can be included in the same discount train or bus pass. Options of this kind are entirely voluntary and play no role in abstract review or program construction. 

The future of academic conferencing

ICMPC15/ESCOM10 aims to reduce per capita emissions by 50%. In future, it may be possible to reduce emissions by 90%--while at the same time further improving accessibility, inclusiveness, and cultural diversity--by increasing the number of hubs so almost everyone can attend without flying.

Hubs should be located such that the number of participants is about the same at each (e.g. 50). The ICMPC could have some 20 hubs with some 50 participants each. Costs could be reduced by using regular teaching rooms and facilities at host institutions. Hubs in poorer or developing countries would mean drastic reductions in the cost of travel, accommodation, and registration for participants in or near those countries, allowing many colleagues to participate for the first time.

Every hub organiser would have a relevant PhD and relevant publications in leading journals. Apart from certain global agreements (e.g. a minimum rejection rate of 10%, a certain proportion of posters), everything could be organised independently by each hub, including the peer review procedure and putting together the program, with a morning and evening session each day. Local programs would be entered to a publicly available global program, from which each hub would independently choose virtual presentations.


This text was written by Richard Parncutt in collaboration with Jakob Mayer, Wegener Centre for Climate and Global Change, Graz. Feedback is welcome. The issues will be discussed in a special conference session. ICMPC15/ESCOM10 supports the academic Flying Less initiative. 


Achten, W. M., Almeida, J., & Muys, B. (2013). Carbon footprint of science: More than flying. Ecological indicators, 34, 352-355.

Bodansky, D. (2016). The Paris climate change agreement: a new hope? American Journal of International Law, 110(2), 288-319.

Cohen, S. A., Higham, J. E., & Cavaliere, C. T. (2011). Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change. Annals of Tourism Research, 38(3), 1070-1089.

Coroama, V.C., Hilty, L.M., Birtel, M. 2012. Effects of Internet-based multiple-site conferences on greenhouse gas emissions. Telematics and Informatics, 29, 4, 362-374.

Field, C.B. et al. (Eds.) (2014). IPCC Summary for policymakers. In Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part A: Global and Sectoral Aspects (pp. 1-32). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Høyer, K. G., & Næss, P. (2001). Conference tourism: A problem for the environment, as well as for research?. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 9(6), 451-470.

Kroesen, M. (2013). Exploring people's viewpoints on air travel and climate change: Understanding inconsistencies. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 21(2), 271-290.

Nolt, J. (2011). How harmful are the average American's greenhouse gas emissions? Ethics, Policy and Environment, 14(1), 3-10. full text

Wynes, S., & Nicholas, K. A. (2017). The climate mitigation gap: Education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, 12(7), 074024. full text

World Meteorological Organization (2017). Climate breaks multiple records in 2016, with global impacts. [25.03.2017].

Zenghelis, D. (2015). Decarbonisation: Innovation and the economics of climate change. Political Quarterly, 86, 172–190. 

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