Sustainable Neuroscience

Climate change is an urgent threat to biodiversity and human health (IPCC Report). While emissions from aviation are currently less than 10% of all emissions they: (1) are expected to grow rapidly over the next few decades, (2) dominate the personal emissions of those wealthy enough to fly regularly (Carbon Footprint Calculator). Recently, a group of climate scientists have publicly pledged not to fly, in order to reduce their carbon emissions and show scientific leadership on climate (No Fly Climate Sci).

These facts raise important questions: What is the annual carbon footprint of neuroscience? What steps can be taken to reduce that carbon footprint? On this page I outline concrete steps that individuals as well as conference organizers can take to reduce the carbon footprint associated with travel for talks and conferences. I believe that smart policies can reduce carbon emissions, while also improving access by less-funded labs and early career scientists. For information about other ways to address climate change, check out My Green Lab, and Citizens' Climate Lobby

How much carbon can one conference generate?

To develop a sense for how large the field's carbon footprint is, I can perform a simple calculation focusing on one conference, SFN. Society for Neuroscience's annual conference has about 30,000 attendees. I'll assume those attendees are traveling on average across the US. Certainly some people are traveling less, but many are traveling farther from Europe or Asia. A roundtrip economy class flight from NYC to San Diego will produce about 2000 kg of CO2. That results in a total conference emissions from air travel alone of 60,000,000 kg of CO2 every year! That's the equivalent to the annual emissions from 13,000 cars (source). Academic scientists are privileged in education, power, and resources. We therefore have a duty to reflect the urgency of climate change in our actions.

If you are an individual

A) Ask conference organizers what steps they have taken to reduce the carbon emissions related to conference travel. Systematic changes to our field have a larger impact than person reductions. Specifically:

(1) Ask conference organizers to calculate and publish the carbon footprint of the conference.

(2) Ask conference organizers to make the conference more accessible by putting talks and posters online.

B) The best way to reduce your personal emissions is not fly to a conference. I understand that conferences have value in advancing our field and our careers, but reasonable moderation in conference attendance is easy to implement. Is travel to that destination conference worth the money and carbon emissions? Can you attend or present at the conference virtually?

C) If you decide to fly to a conference, get the most out of the trip.

(1) Can you combine this conference trip with something else? For example, after attending the conference can you visit a colleague at a nearby university? Can you combine the trip with a vacation you were planning on taking anyways?

(2) Put your poster or talk slides online. Its very easy to post them to twitter, where many people will see them. By doing this your allow people who did not attend to learn about your work. By doing this you make it easier for other people to reduce their emissions. Further, you let people without the economic resources for conference travel, including undergraduates and under-funded scientists, to have access to a more level playing field. In my experience, putting a poster online means more people look at it.

D) If you decide to fly to a conference, limit your impact.

(1) Offset your carbon emissions. Offsetting emissions means paying someone else to stop emitting, or take some action to remove carbon from the atmosphere. The ethics of carbon offsets are complex, as they may let people justify emitting more. In my opinion, reduce what you can, and offset the rest.

(2) Take direct flights, and fly coach. Both of these actions will reduce the carbon emissions of your trip. Obviously if there is a non-flight option like a bus or train, take that instead.

E) Use your voice, and status as a scientist. Talk with your colleagues and friends about the carbon footprint associated with travel. Ask your lab or institution to offset travel emissions.

If you are a conference or talk organizer

A) Plan conference locations to reduce emissions and facilitate non aviation transportation.

B) Record all talks, and post the videos online so non conference attendees can watch. This lets people reduce their emissions, and also gives access to under-funded scientists.

C) Put electronic copies of posters online in a central repository.

D) Allow people to give virtual talks. During a talk everyone looks at the slides anyways, not the individual.

E) Calculate, publish, and offset conference emissions.

F) Establish a sustainability coordinator for the conference, to plan and execute sustainability goals

G) Make a plan to achieve a zero-carbon conference

At your institution

A) Calculate, publish, and offset institution emissions

B) Update travel policies that allow and encourage low-carbon travel options like trains, buses, and virtual attendance

C) Establish a sustainability coordinate for the institute, to plan and execute sustainability goals

C) Make a plan to achieve zero-carbon operations


Have a question or comment? I'd be happy to answer it. Email me at <first name><last name>