Academic Rebellion OR: why we needed a carbon-neutral conference, and how we did it

Evidence of the climate emergency is all around us. It was therefore one of the earliest considerations in our 2019 Women in AI & Ethics conference that we wanted to create a carbon-neutral event.

We sought advice from an expert group of climate-mitigation professionals, whose most common response was advising us not to hold a conference – the single most effective method of carbon mitigation is not to create that carbon at all. Offsetting comes an extremely poor second. 

Having committed to the conference, however, we employed Carbon Footprint Ltd to  calculate the carbon that would be generated, and assessed every decision we took on the basis of its potential for carbon-generation.

This required going into significant detail. For example, we selected our printer on the basis of their own carbon-mitigation efforts – the company we chose maintains a tree-planting programme to offset its carbon as well as providing numerous climate-friendly options. 

Some decisions were obvious – we booked a vegetarian conference dinner, with the food sourced as locally as possible. We also did without conference giveaways, kept branding to a minimum and tried to find items that could be re-used – for example we had no conference-specific pop-up banners (these are also difficult to recycle). 

Having done our best to minimise the carbon, we then needed to measure the carbon that would be generated by the event. This required gathering details during the registration process from every attendee – eg where they were coming from, their mode of travel. We also worked with the venue to calculate its own carbon footprint for the day.

Our reduction efforts resulted in a relatively low figure of 80 tonnes generated. By far the largest item was the aviation carbon – 26 flights generated 96% of the carbon, highlighting how crucial this issue is for academic conferences. 

We subsequently commissioned Carbon Footprint to offset the carbon through a mix of rainforest-protection and tree-planting. Part of our tree-planting activity will include schoolchildren, as we believe that an awareness of how to take care of our planet should be taught at the earliest possible age.

As a result of our activities we were certified as a carbon-neutral event – we believe this makes us the first carbon-neutral conference that Oxford has hosted and we hope this is a first step in creating a new standard for conferences: carbon-neutrality.

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