Digital carbon footprint and virtual events

6 May 2021

As we discussed in one of our previous blogs, Which areas contribute the most to an event’s footprint?, the main areas that contribute to an in-person event’s footprint are travel, food, materials and waste. This was estimated to be over 170 kilograms of CO2 emissions per day for an average conference attendee. A similar online conference would have a significantly smaller carbon footprint, but not zero.

What is a digital carbon footprint?
Almost everything we do has an environmental footprint. When we are in the digital sphere, we still have an environmental footprint. This is largely the emissions from energy consumed to power the internet and the devices we use. Furthermore, the impacts of making and disposing of these devices, often called ‘e-waste’, is also significant. When considering online and streamed events we should also take into account any real-world production emissions. Social media, websites, online streaming of music and video, and storing data in a cloud all require the use of energy. You, currently reading this blog, are using energy.

About 2% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions come from the world wide web. The use of the internet and streaming media is increasing exponentially, and together with emerging technologies, the energy demand is further accelerated. Pre-pandemic it was projected that information and communications technologies could need up to 20% of global energy demand by 2030.

Environmental footprint of virtual events
A research article from G. Faber, published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies, offers a framework for analysing the carbon emissions of an online conference based on factors that include everything from energy used by servers and monitors to the resources used to manufacture and distribute the devices involved. It also includes a case study based on the virtual conference held by the AirMiners in May 2020, which produced 66 times less greenhouse gas emissions than an in-person gathering in San Francisco would have done.

Faber gathered information on emissions associated with the computers, monitors, and desk lights used by conference attendees; video streaming during the conference and search engine queries and website visits made because of the conference; and pre-conference planning meetings, which were also conducted over Zoom. It was calculated that the conference generated the equivalent of 1,324 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. Of the total, 64% of emissions came from network data transfer, 19% from the pre-conference planning meetings, and 11% from computer use during the conference.

It is clear that, since a lot of the factors that increase an in-person event’s environmental footprint are eliminated when hosting a virtual event, its environmental footprint is lower. But we have to take into consideration the audience members’ habits and behaviour. For example, if an audience member of an online event is on a green electricity tariff at home, and doesn’t replace their phone with every new model, their footprint per hour could be considerably lower than attending a typical physical event. Similarly, the emissions of an in-person event can be significantly lower if it is running on renewable energy. Theoretically, it could be lower than the footprint of a digital user at home with a regular energy tariff.

Let’s take a look at an example that can be found on chrisjohnson.earth. We have two fictional events: a physical and an online event. The physical event is an 8-hour greenfield show with 10,000 capacity, in which all attendees travel the 50-mile round trip in medium-sized cars with two people. From the information given on juliesbicycle.com and DEFRA this event would generate 76 tonnes C02e, 69.75 tonnes C02e of which come from travel. From Netflix streaming data and averaged global energy mix if we have 10,000 participants in an online event the footprint would be approximately 6.8 tonnes C02e. This shows that the physical and the digital event have quite similar footprints if we exclude travel.

Things have changed drastically the past year for all of us. The pandemic has had various impacts on our habits and behaviours. Comparing in-person and virtual events is difficult since despite their similarities there are important areas that are quite different. A virtual event’s environmental footprint is lower than an in-person event even if no changes are made in the way it’s organised.

The Company of Biologists is offering Sustainable Conferencing Grants to fund innovative ideas that enable biologists to collaborate productively while minimising their impact on the environment. Applications are invited from the organisers of a wide range of virtual activities, including – but not limited to – meetings, workshops, conferences, seminars, training, networking and sand pitting in the fields covered by our journals. Learn more here.

Read more

Visit our journal websites

Development Journal of Cell Science The Journal of Experimental Biology Disease Models & Mechanisms Biology Open

© 2024 The Company of Biologists Ltd | Registered Charity 277992
Registered in England and Wales | Company Limited by Guarantee No 514735
Registered office: Bidder Building, Station Road, Histon, Cambridge CB24 9LF, UK