Science Wednesday: It’s Easy To Be Green (at Scientific Meetings)

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By Stephen S. Hale

How green are scientific societies? The Council of Scientific Society Presidents represents about 60 organizations with over 1.4 million members. If they all flew once a year to meet together for four days, that’s collectively 2.8 million flights and 11.2 million dirty coffee cups from breaks. Travel to and from meetings pours large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 1 For many frequent-flying scientists, air travel produces our biggest personal greenhouse gas impact, often making the carbon footprint of ecologists and conservation biologists exceed the U.S. per capita carbon footprint.  2 Many scientific societies are striving to make their meetings greener.

Recently, I helped prepare a green meeting policy for the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF), an international scientific organization that “advances understanding and wise stewardship of estuarine and coastal ecosystems worldwide.” The United Nations Environment Program says a green meeting is one where emissions of greenhouse gases are minimized and unavoidable emissions are compensated for, natural resource consumption is minimized, waste generation is avoided where possible and remaining waste is reused or recycled, and the local community benefits economically, socially, and environmentally.

Among other things, the policy calls for meeting attendees to make voluntary donations to a carbon offset fund. Offsets are not meant to replace reducing your emissions; offsets are to be used for emissions you cannot avoid. To be credible, it is important to buy certifiable carbon offsets that result in a real reduction of carbon dioxide emissions that would otherwise not have happened. The Nature Conservancy website lists what to look for in carbon offset programs: permanence, additionality (would it have happened anyway), no leakage (the old practice just displaced to a new area), and standards of verification by third parties. Alternatively, CERF conferences can provide environmental footprint offsets for impacts other than carbon dioxide emissions (e.g., water use, paper consumption, waste products). Donations to local projects that, while not a certifiable carbon offset, would enhance other environmental values (e.g., local oyster reef restoration, small coastal vegetated buffer), serve to engage the community and provide local benefits.

The CERF Board hopes the policy will reduce the environmental footprint of CERF meetings and encourage other scientific organizations to follow down the same green path.

About the author: Stephen S. Hale joined EPA’s Office of Research and Development as a Research Ecologist in 1995. He is currently serving on the Governing Board of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation.

  1. H.E. Fox. 2009. Front Ecol Environ 7(6): 294-296.
  2. T.M. Hamill. 2007. Bull Am Meteorol Soc, Nov 2007. pp. 1816–1819; B. Lester. 2007. Science 318:36–38.

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