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Rethinking academic conferencing for a carbon-constrained world

COVID-19 has forced academic conferencing online. As we emerge from the pandemic, we mustn’t return to the ‘old normal.’

BY BLANE HARVEY, ALAIN BOURQUE, YING SYUAN HUANG & ANNE DEBRABANDERE | NOV 05 2021

Even before the pandemic, we knew that something had to change in terms of academic conferences. Through the #flyingless and “No Fly Climate Sci” movements, climate and environment conference-goers were increasingly calling out the hypocrisy of flying thousands of people across the globe to discuss the state of the climate. As delegates from around the world gather in Glasgow for COP26, it’s time we look closely at the opportunities and costs of convening online, and consider what the future holds for international academic conferences.

Academic travel and the climate crisis

Numbers can vary widely, but academic air travel represents a major chunk of universities’ carbon footprints. Here at McGill University, our office of sustainability reports that about 14 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from university-financed air travel. Meanwhile, a 2018 case study from the University of British Columbia found that about one third of the institution’s emissions were related to air travel, and only a small fraction of people (eight to 10  per cent) were responsible for the majority of those emissions. Achieving net-zero emissions will require dramatically reducing these figures or resorting to sometimes-dubious carbon offsets. However, a major counterargument to radically changing how we collaborate and convene – at least before the pandemic – was that there wasn’t really an effective alternative.

As we all know by now, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of academia online. At McGill, 2020 emissions from university-related travel fell 69 per cent from 2019 levels, representing a 5,549-tonne reduction of greenhouse gases. At the same time, the rapid transformation of work practices has spurred learning and innovation on how academics can gather online productively, effectively, sustainably and equitably. However, after nearly two years of feeling “Zoomed out” from endless virtual engagements that tax our productivity and our sense of wellbeing, scholars could be forgiven in longing for a return to networking over coffee and cookies, or casually debriefing over wine and cheese at a conference.

There is now a growing body of documentation and research capturing the “better” and the “worse” of these experiences. As we begin to draw lessons, some important challenges stand out.

Understanding and meeting expectations

First, we need a better understanding of the evolving purpose of conference participation. Online conferences have proven efficient at broadcasting information and knowledge to large audiences but, in an era of information overload, is that still their primary purpose? Other motivations, such as networking, peer-to-peer learning, and feeling a sense of membership in a community of peers, translate less easily to virtual settings, and are areas where the online experience has often fallen short. Moreover, we are still only beginning to stretch beyond “replicating” in-person conferencing experiences to explore how online spaces might allow us to do totally new things that may expand the purpose of conference participation in the first place. Moving beyond the linear transmission of information towards engagement in network-building and technology-enhanced modes of co-producing knowledge are ways that we can engage with a wider range of participant motivations.

Paying attention to equity and inclusion

Much has been said about how online conferences have lowered barriers to participation related to cost and time while also reducing associated emissions. But we caution that these benefits may not be experienced in the same way by all – particularly when considered in a global context. For many international scholars, particularly those based in the global South (such as small island developing states and sub-Saharan Africa) where academic networks are comparatively weak and the impacts of climate change are most pronounced, international conferences serve as critical avenues for gaining new knowledge and establishing professional networks. Research tells us, however, that conferences can reinforce academic hierarchies due to language barriers, travel costs, and travel or visa restrictions.

Yet the technological, capacity and logistical barriers introduced by the jump online could be reproducing many of the same historical disadvantages. The current dominant approach to online conferences is often synchronous, bandwidth intensive, and run in English, leaving some participants to join at unreasonable hours of the day, bear high connectivity costs, and struggle to interact in what may be their third or fourth language without the benefit of body language, visual cues, or a more relaxed pace of interaction that can be achieved in person. To be sure, these are barriers that can be addressed. But it calls on conference planners and participants to be conscious of the new forms of exclusion that events may present, and to look for forms of support that can address them, particularly for new scholars in the global South.

Rethinking our approaches to design

Like it or not, a move to virtual or “hybrid” conference formats means throwing out the time-tested recipe book that so often guides planning for in-person events. The ways we plan, finance, host, and share results of impactful online conferences will look dramatically different, and there is much to be learned about what works in this regard. This represents an important opportunity for knowledge-sharing and collaboration within academia.

As an example of this design rethink, McGill and Ouranos (Quebec’s leading climate and adaptation science consortium) are working together to plan towards the 2023 Adaptation Futures Conference, to be held in Montreal and online. With support from the International Development Research Centre, we will spend the next two years gathering and sharing insights from academics, practitioners, and policy makers about how online conferences can best meet their needs, compiling a repository of effective practices from the past 18 months, and building these into a costed design that includes dedicated capacity and networking support for participants joining from the global South. Our hope in doing so is to not only redesign a conference based on the best new evidence we can obtain, but to kickstart a conversation about the future of low-carbon global knowledge exchange in academia. We see this current moment in time as a unique opportunity to revisit questions of purpose and inclusion in academic conferencing, and hope that this conversation can play a part.

Blane Harvey is an assistant professor in the department of integrated studies in education at McGill University; Alain Bourque is executive director of Ouranos; Ying Syuan Huang is a research consultant for the United Nations University Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability; and Anne Debrabandere is a specialist at Ouranos.

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