Thoughts on Online Conferences

Submitted: June 28th, 2021

Elisa Carl, SIC Admin Support
Conservator for Modern Materials and Media, MA
elisasophiecarl@gmail.com

The last large conference that I attended in person was in Lisbon, during May of 2019. It spanned over a three-day period and included hundreds of participants from various countries. Like most of the participants, I traveled by plane. The sun was burning in Lisbon. The temperature outside was far beyond comfortable, and the air conditioning inside was freezing.

The topic of this conference was on our “plastics heritage”. Although I wasn’t an SIC member at the time, I noticed the organization submitted a poster on the “Use of plastic in the field of conservation and restoration of cultural heritage”. This conference especially triggered my thoughts on the environmental impact of such events. Ironically, food and drinks were served in disposable plastic containers.

Not long after, events like these became unimaginable. The pandemic caused everything to be transferred online. Now, almost every week there is the opportunity to join an online conference, a webinar, a workshop, or a symposium. I am now part of a group chat with former student colleagues that keeps me updated on online events. The increasing number of events, and of course all the online meetings that became part of our daily lives, made me think about the environmental impact of virtual events. Is this sudden development actually better for our climate? And what about the social impact? Conferences in the field of conservation stimulate a lively exchange and offer a place to network.

I can definitely see positive social aspects that an online conference can fuel. Attending conferences has become more affordable; people who usually can’t afford costs associated with travel, accommodation and registration are no longer excluded. Until recently, most online event registrations were free of charge. Another positive is that a broader audience base can be reached. For example, a virtual conference with almost 1000 registrations was made possible, which was originally planned as two in-person events with a much smaller audience (1). Almost every continent was represented. At this conference, everyone was impressed with how the organizers made networking possible. Breakout rooms were organized between sessions, with different topics that could be handed in by participants in the mornings. In addition, breakout rooms were provided just for enjoying a virtual coffee and a chat. It was impressive how well it worked out. I quite enjoyed that people were mixed up randomly each time, without the usual formation of clusters.

Despite all the positive aspects, I recognize that online meetings cannot totally replace in-person meetings and events. We are all desperate to see each other with non-pixelated and non-buffering faces again. We want to enjoy a real coffee together.

Being online and spending time on digital devices is part of our everyday lives. The materiality and energy consumption of the internet is so abstract to us, that we tend to forget what is behind it (2). Data processing requires a lot of energy, and energy production leaves carbon, water and land footprints. Virtual events became more common with the pandemic and consequently, the collective climate impact of these activities grew.

Research on the environmental impact of online events has already started, and can give us some non-abstract numbers: Just one hour of videoconferencing or streaming emits 150-1,000 grams of carbon dioxide, requires 2-12 liters of water and demands a land area adding up to about the size of an iPad Mini (3). A whole conference — meaning the network data transfer, the meetings for pre-conference planning, and the energy used from computers during the conference — was calculated to generate 1,324 kg of carbon dioxide emission (2). The good news is that if the above conference had been held in person, flights alone would have generated 66 times the emissions as the entire virtual conference (2). The environmental footprint of online conferences is not zero, but it is comforting to know that there are ways for everyone to reduce their climate impact when participating in virtual events. For example, choosing lower quality videos can drastically reduce the amount of data processing, and leaving your camera off can even reduce the footprint by 96% (3). Purchasing renewable electricity for your home and replacing your computer less often can also help to improve our ecological footprint (2).

It appears that planning an online conference can be an environmental decision. Hopefully, technology will progress in a way that makes internet energy consumption more efficient, and energy production will become greener. The ecological footprint of online events will likely improve, even though the amount of events will increase. In addition, I see positive social developments in store for our community. I hope that online conferences won’t just be an alternative in the future, and that with our new technical knowledge and developments, a large part of in-person conferences can be replaced. However, I also hope that we will soon enjoy a real-life cup of coffee together while chatting about our passion for conservation. Until then, we should enjoy the growing online opportunities and this innovative, easier way of learning from each other. And when doing so, let’s try to switch off the camera, whenever it is not needed.

References

(1) PLASTICS IN PERIL, Virtual conference, November 16th–19th, Book of Abstracts; 2020,http://www.deutsches-museum.de/fileadmin/Content/010_DM/050_Forschung/2020/Pamplona_Plastics_in_Peril_final.pdf

(2) Sarah DeWeerdt, February 2021, New study quantifies the carbon emissions of virtual conferences; ,https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2021/02/virtual-conferences-have-a-low-climate-impact-but-not-zero/

(3) Purdue University, January 14, 2021, Turn off that camera during virtual meetings, environmental study says;
,https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2021/01/210114134033.htm

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