Simon Chapman: Conferences and carbon

Earlier this year I declined an invitation to fly all expenses from Sydney to Geneva to speak for 15 minutes at an international cancer conference. There was a hole in my calendar. Geneva is a hop from Lyon, where I have good friends. I have a son in London who I haven’t seen for a while. It was tempting.  But the carbon footprint and the derisory speaking time got to me. 

Last week, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand, to speak about the media hyping of prostate cancer testing. Antipodeans love having venerable Old World sages open their meetings. Muir Gray was made for the role, but instead sent his carbon footprint apologies and charmingly spoke to us from his English kitchen via a digital movie file he’d filmed and hit “send”. He could have probably done it live too, via a projected skype image at virtually no cost. Maybe it was after his bedtime.

Far from feeling short changed, the audience loved it and reverentially hung on his every erudite word, applauding at the end.

I have offered this solution before. But you can feel the icy sub-text cloaking your host’s “I’ll get back to you on that.”  They want a “real” speaker.

But if more people took Muir’s principled stand, untold tonnes of carbon emissions might be reduced. And at what cost? Of course, it must not stop with speakers. Instead of paying exorbitant conference, hotel and travel fees, why not set up networks of high speed, well appointed video hubs in major cities where delegates in civilised time zones could listen and interact with not just one Muir Gray class speaker, but perhaps dozens of them.

If we stay up ungodly hours to watch sport, why not stay up for a state-of-the-art interactive video?

In two weeks I’m flying to a three day BMJ meeting in London, where the same friends and son inducements will ice the cake. As an Africaphile, imagine I might accept an invitation to speak for 10 seconds in Zanzibar or Bamako. I’m not ready to give up on travel entirely, but if we  piously applaud carbon taxes and warm to exemplars like Muir Gray, what ought we all to do about it ourselves in our work travel?

If you travel professionally 4 times a year, why not set yourself travel reductions and halve it? Why not make every second speaking invitation a video acceptance? 

About Simon Chapman: Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. His Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History was  published by Blackwell (Oxford) in 2007. In 1997 he won the World Health Organisztion’s World No Tobacco Day Medal and in 2003 was voted by his international peers to be awarded the American Cancer Society’s Luther Terry Award for outstanding individual leadership in tobacco control. He is editor of BMJ specialist journal, Tobacco Control.

  • Brett Montgomery

    At the RACGP Annual Scientific Convention in Brisbane in 2006, the audience heard a live but telephoned presentation from Paul Glasziou in Oxford. ( ) Questions were asked and answered in real time, and for a visual component we had powerpoint slides. The audience seemed very happy. Conference organisers take note: this is the way of the future!

  • David Pencheon

    Quite right Professor Chapman. It’s very good to be able to respond to invitations without snubbing them. A good tactic I learnt from a colleague in Cornwall was never to accept invitations from meetings who were not prepared to vidoecast or videocapture and broadcast their conference. It’s set to change the dynamics (and economics) of the conference circuit, without necessarily upsetting networking nor CPD.
    David Pencheon
    NHS Sustainable Development Unit, England

  • Thomas Brandhuber

    Congratulations, Mr. Chapman!
    There´s nothing to add to your suggestions.
    I hope – at least in a couple of years – we´ll wonder, that there had been so much travelling only for exchange of research informations at former times….
    Hoping there will soon be quite a lot of people, who share this dream.

    Thomas Brandhuber,
    Pediatrician, Homeopathic Medicine,
    Mistelbach, Austria

  • Simon makes several important points. I am “attending” a conference at Niagara Falls next week which starts at 9am Canadian time (11pm Sydney time). An additional benefit of reducing one’s travel, which an influenza afficionado must raise, is the reduced risk of infectious disease transmission by avoiding the crowds in planes, trains, lecture theatres and leisure boats. Any meeting would however have to be scintillating to keep me going past Midday (2am in Sydney).

    Roberet Booy

  • Prashant. Bavi

    As a Indian postdoc working in cancer research in Saudi Arabia, I have attended 4 conferences in North America in the last 4 years.

    I would beg to differ from your opinion on attending far away CME’s and carbon footprint. I subject myself to loads of work and deadlines to be met before/after travelling, undergo the torture of a trans atlantic flight, jet lag, flight delays and misplaced/lost bags. It would be a blessing to avoid all these.

    But they are a necessary evel. When you attend these meetings you are exposed to conventional sessions, symposia, workshops, networking, exhibitor booths and many more things. These cannot be substituted in a virtual CME for now.Maybe in the future this would be a practical option.

  • Joe Mellor

    Professor Chapman, you are so right. If human civilization is to have a future, we must reduce our carbon dioxide emissions. Flying is a potent cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Flights to conferences are avoidable under many circumstances and the quality of learning may well be better using alternative, modern video-conferencing techniques. So, this is probably the way we’ll be going in the future. Let’s embrace it now.

    Joe Mellor
    Consultant Anaesthetist, Leeds. UK

  • Dr.N.P.Viswanathan

    I will be very happy if every one who reads this blog ,To read my letter published on 8th july2008,Virtual congress of
    general practice is thriving.Let us join hands to arrange conferences without leaving carbon prints and which will be eco-friendly with out using papers.Paper free conference.
    Family physician
    Bangalore ,India

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