Resource commitments of the Strategic Plan: Oxford's carbon-neutral conference

The University’s Strategic Plan (2018-23) includes our commitment to ensure that our estate provides an environment which promotes world-class research and education – whilst minimising our environmental impact, conserving our historic built environment and improving our space utilisation.

 

Carolyn Ten-Holter (Marketing Officer) and Marina Jirotka (Investigator) from the ORBIT (Observatory for Responsible Research and Innovation in ICT) team in Computer Science discuss their recent work to deliver a carbon-neutral event for the University.

What made you decide to hold a carbon-neutral conference?

Evidence of the climate emergency and animal extinction is all around us and we have been concerned about this for some time. It was therefore one of the earliest considerations of our 100+ Brilliant Women in AI & Ethics Conference, we knew that we wanted to create a carbon-neutral event.

How did you start this process off?

We first sought advice from an expert group of climate-mitigation professionals, whose most common response was advising us not to hold a conference. The single most effective method of carbon mitigation is not to create that carbon at all – offsetting comes an extremely poor second. However, having committed to the conference, we employed Carbon Footprint Ltd to calculate the amount of carbon that could be generated and then assessed every decision we took on the basis of reducing our emissions as much as possible.

What was your next step?

We explored every aspect of the conference and its impact on the environment. For example, we selected the printing company we used on the basis of their own carbon-mitigation efforts. The one we chose maintains a tree-planting programme to offset its carbon as well as providing numerous climate-friendly options.

Some of our decisions were simple. We booked a vegetarian conference dinner, with the food sourced as locally as possible. We didn’t produce any conference give-aways – due to the extraordinary waste – and we kept our branding to a minimum, creating items that could be re-used for other activities.

How did you assess the amount of carbon that was generated?

We gathered details during registration of where each attendee came from, their mode of travel etc. We also worked with the venue to calculate its own carbon footprint. In the end our efforts resulted in generating 80 tonnes of carbon – which is actually a low figure for a conference. The largest source was the flights of attendees – 26 flights generated 96% of the carbon. 

What did you do to make those 80 tonnes carbon-neutral?

We subsequently commissioned Carbon Footprint to offset our carbon through a mix of rainforest-protection and tree-planting, in both southern and northern hemispheres.

Part of the carbon-offsetting activities we have chosen will involve schoolchildren. We believe that an awareness of how to take care of our planet should be taught at the earliest possible age. That is also one of the reasons we also ran a schools' panel at the conference.

The final result was having the event certified as a carbon-neutral event. We believe this makes our event the first carbon-neutral conference that Oxford has hosted.

We’re very happy with this but we do perceive a dilemma. There is a clear need to stop excessive travelling – flying in particular – to help address the climate emergency. Academics are of course aware of this. However, as it is essential that they collaborate to carry out and communicate their work, we would urge the research community to investigate new ways to address this issue.


 
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