58 Trips to the Moon and Back

58 Trips to the Moon and Back

04.11.2020
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Photo: Stephen Walker / Unsplash

Science solves problems, but it's people that make the solutions work. A collective and sustained effort is needed from all of us if we are going to solve two major problems of our time: global health and climate change.

Scientific researchers need to travel to do field work and need to connect with each other. However, in recent years a hyper-mobile culture developed and we went from taking essential trips to becoming frequent flyers. This is at odds with the worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change. It presents a conundrum for those working in global health whose ultimate goal is to help improve the health and wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people in the poorest places. These are the same people and places that are being hardest hit by the changes to our climate. Researchers are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with this conundrum and are looking for ways to make the enterprise of science more environmentally responsible.

In recent years a hyper-mobile culture developed and scientific researchers went from taking essential trips to becoming frequent flyers. This is at odds with the worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and address climate change

A new study calculated the air miles travelled by all the participants of a large conference in 2019. The conference was the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), the largest meeting in global health attracting more than 4,000 people every year. For one meeting the participants travelled 44.6 million kilometres. That’s the equivalent of 58 trips to the moon and back. The emissions generated by all this flying totalled 8,646 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which is roughly equal to the weekly emissions from powering approximately 9,400 American homes.

Can we justify 58 trips to the moon and back each year for a single conference?

The study offers different solutions to reduce the conference carbon footprint, including regular online conferencing and regional meetings to reduce long-haul flights. Alternating between an in-person meeting and a virtual meeting would immediately cut emissions by half and enabling participants to travel to a meeting in their region could cut emissions by an estimated 58% compared to a single central location as in 2019. Notably, offsetting the greenhouse gas emissions is not offered as a solution since it doesn’t reduce the emissions in the first place. And while planting trees to compensate for the emissions from your flight is better than nothing, it will take 40 years before all the CO2 is absorbed.

A study calculated the air miles travelled by all the participants of a large conference in 2019: the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH), attracting more than 4,000 people. Participants travelled 44.6 million kilometres. That’s the equivalent of 58 trips to the moon and back

Conference organisers are committing to mitigating climate change and shrinking their carbon footprints. This study was spearheaded by Teun Bousema, but was done hand-in-hand with ASTMH. Chandy John, past president of ASTMH hails it as "Something Big that Matters". His recent editorial highlights ASTMH’s dedicated ‘Green Working Group’ that is leading a collaborative exercise on how to operate in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Chandy points out that whilst air miles are by far the largest contributor to the conference footprint, other things matter too including preventing food waste, using power from clean energy sources, and access to public transport.

We look to our institutions for leadership on climate change and to take action to shrink their own carbon footprints. Let’s play our part in this collective effort. Let’s support these solutions to make them work - register for an online conference and do it again.