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Footprint of International Conferences

Footprint of International Conferences

Sunday, 19 July, 2020 - 05:30
Najib Saab
Secretary-General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and editor-in-chief of Environment & Development magazine

Since Charles Darwin first presented the results of his research on evolution at a scientific gathering in 1837, the turf hasn’t changed much. He was speaking at the Geological Society of London in front of the most prominent faces of the town’s scientific community, with hand-sketched illustrations on boards as backdrop.

Around 200 years later, the changes have been limited to replacing the boards by digital Power Point slides, with international audience due to the advent of air travel, making the impact on the environment much bigger than it was during Darwin's era, when delegates were limited to the local community.

The findings of a recent study by a Dutch research team on the environmental impact of international conferences were alarming. The analysis of the effects of travel, accommodation and services for an international conference attended by 5,000 delegates showed that the total distance traveled amounted to 44 million kilometers, equivalent to 58 space trips to the moon. The full environmental footprint of the conference over a two-day period only, including carbon emissions, waste, pollution and additional resource consumption, exceeded that of 300 homes during a whole year. Thus, the environmental footprint of one participant in an international conference is equal to that of about 50 persons during the same period.

Applied to the climate summit held annually by the United Nations over a period of two weeks, where up to 30,000 people participate from all over the world, it would be evident that the environmental footprint exceeds that of 10 million persons during the same period.

However, international conferences convened by the United Nations represent only a small part of the global conference scene, which is dominated by medical congresses. Among the largest of these events is the annual conference of radiology, which is held in the United States with the participation of more than 50,000 specialists from 137 countries, congested by about 10,000 research papers. This meeting, although jammed, allows for presenting results of new research and face-to-face interaction.

When the 105th Congress of Radiology was held in Chicago in December 2019, some speakers were unable to obtain visas to enter the United States, so they requested permission to submit their papers online. This was flatly rejected by the organizers, arguing that the technical capabilities for remote presentations are not available. Ironically, after less than six months, the organizers announced that the next annual radiology conference, to be held at the end of 2020, would be entirely virtual, with no personal attendance. All sessions will take place online, again with more than 10,000 papers presented and discussed, albeit remotely this time.

What was considered unattainable a few months ago has today become the norm. It turned out that digital technology can evolve rapidly in response to new situations. The recent meeting of the High-Level Global Political Forum on Sustainable Development, held last week, was a landmark of this transformation. The annual meeting, which convened at the United Nations Headquarters in New York since 2013, attracted thousands of delegates from governments, international organizations and civil society. It is the place where governments present their national reports on the progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. This year, the entire plenary and side meetings were held online.

What lessons can be learned from the hundreds of recent international virtual meetings which assembled remotely? The first lesson is that what was considered impossible a short time ago became available and acceptable as the norm. However, if travel mitigation reduces the environmental footprint and costs, and enables participation of a larger number of interested persons, this does not replace the need for face-to-face interaction. Eye contact, facial expressions and body language are an essential part of proper communication. They are just as important as speaking and listening, not to mention that group meetings help develop teamwork skills.

The virtual-meeting experience also showed that voice and video together are more effective than voice alone. Not seeing the expression on the faces of the participants during a long meeting leads to lack of focus. However, adopting video together with audio in international virtual conferences cannot be supported by existing internet networks in many countries. The large virtual meetings made it evident that individual on-screen presence of speakers only, in the absence of an audience listening, discussing and reacting, reduces the dynamics and the enthusiasm of the speakers, who are eager to receive feedback from the audience, and not only from their fellow speakers.

There must be a clear will not to return to the era of huge international conferences in which thousands participate, with their carbon emissions, pollution and waste of human, financial and natural resources. The solution might be to adopt an alternative formula, which combines smaller regional meetings under one roof, including audience and speakers, with different meetings and individual delegates simultaneously linked online.

Many will refute this approach, as reducing major international meetings will rob them of the opportunity to shop and have fun while participating in a UN meeting in New York or a FAO meeting in Rome, taking a stroll on the banks of Lake Léman on the sidelines of an international gathering in Geneva, or enjoying a safari while dropping a day of a conference at the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi. However, it ultimately is inevitable to get used to serious international work, because the critical situation in which we live cannot afford to resist change and abandon international conference tourism.

The irony is that some organizations and development funds are still devoting the largest portion of their budget for international meetings to air travel, hotel accommodation and printing expenses, refusing to reallocate a substantive share to virtual meetings and electronic publishing. But changing the mindset takes time. Let us remember that what we are witnessing is the first radical change in conference mechanism since Charles Darwin presented his theory in London two centuries ago.

Najib Saab is Secretary General of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development (AFED) and Editor-in-Chief of Environment & Development magazine

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