What’s the real impact?
When comparing in-person conferences to virtual conferences, it’s easy to see the difference in carbon emissions just by looking at the numbers:
- An in-person conference/event that hosts 1000 participants results in 1,252,920 lbs. of CO2 emissions whereas a virtual or hybrid event would result in as little as 7,699 lbs. of CO2 emissions. (These numbers account for air travel, land transportation, commute, and food waste.)
- For smaller in-person events and meetings of only fifty people, there is still a total of 62,645 lbs. of CO2 emissions, whereas virtual and hybrid meetings bring that number down to 385 lbs. of CO2 emissions.
However, recent studies have made the argument that virtual conferencing practices are also yielding a significant amount of CO2 (see How Do Virtual Meetings Impact the Environment blog). With air travel, hotels, and commutes out of the equation, where are these carbon emissions coming from?
According to researcher Grant Faber’s case study on a virtual conference held in May 2020, network data transfer is the main culprit. He broke down the CO2 emissions of the virtual conference as follows:
Network data transfer emissions measures the CO2 generated from data centers transmitting information to the user and vice versa. According to the Federal Environmental Agency, the amount of CO2 generated varies depending on the internet connection (bmu.de).
Although Faber’s virtual conference left a carbon footprint, he notes that if this were an in-person conference, the cost of flights alone would have produced 66 times the emissions as the entire virtual conference.
With the lower carbon emissions from conferencing and optimized internet connections, research shows that virtual meetings are still the better option when considering carbon emissions. Furthermore, video streaming practices may not be as dire as previously suggested. According to Dirk Messner, President of the Federal Environmental Agency, the solution is the expansion of fiber optic networks, 5G networks, and climate friendly transmission channels (bmu.de).
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