CERN FCC Week: A Case Study in Unsustainable Conferences

Discover how the CERN FCC Week served as a case study in the unsustainable emissions from major conferences, despite pursuing critical scientific progress.

I want to share my thoughts on an important issue – how major international conferences contribute to increasing global pollution. As someone concerned about sustainability, I’ve become increasingly aware of the high environmental cost of these large-scale events, especially when they require thousands of attendees to travel long distances by plane.

Let’s consider a specific example – the Future Circular Collider (FCC) study kick-off meeting held recently in San Francisco. The CERN FCC Week brought together around 500 participants from over 30 countries to discuss plans for a new generation of particle accelerators. An impressive 100 staff members made the long trip from CERN’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

While such scientific gatherings are crucial for advancing research and collaboration, they come with a heavy carbon footprint that cannot be ignored. The emissions from transportation alone for an event of this scale are staggering.

To better understand the impact, let’s calculate the approximate CO2 emissions produced by those 100 CERN staff flying from Geneva to San Francisco:

  • Average distance of a flight between Geneva and San Francisco: ~9,600 km
  • Average CO2 emissions per passenger for this flight distance: ~1.6 metric tons, or 1,600 kg CO2 to say it in other words (source: ICAO)
  • Total CO2 emissions for 100 passengers: 100 x 1.6 = 160 metric tons

So just the travel of CERN’s delegation alone resulted in emissions of a whopping 160 metric tons of CO2. To put that into perspective, the average person produces around 4.5 metric tons of CO2 per year from all their activities. The 100 staff’s flights essentially equaled the annual emissions of over 35 average individuals.

But wait, there’s more! We also need to consider the economic cost to CERN for this travel. Assuming an average economy ticket price of $1,000 for a Geneva-San Francisco round trip:

  • 100 tickets x $1,000 = $100,000 just in airfare costs

And this doesn’t even account for additional expenses like accommodation, local transportation, and meals during the conference stay. The total financial burden for CERN was likely well over $500,000. You understood well, half a million dollars.

In addition, a recent study put its estimate at $305-312 per metric ton of CO2. Therefore, if CERN would like to compensate for environmental pollution, an extra $50,000 is required.

This is even more surprising when compared to the actions of other large companies. In fact, Apple decided to significantly reduce travel expenses in order to prevent layoffs and continue investing in innovation (source: Bloomberg).

Is CERN falling behind his peers also in this case?

These back-of-the-envelope calculations highlight the significant environmental toll and budgetary implications when an organisation has to fly a large contingent halfway across the world for a conference. And this is just one event – if we extrapolate to the numerous major scientific meetings happening annually worldwide, the cumulative impact becomes even more concerning.

So what can be done? How can we minimize this pollution while still allowing vital knowledge-sharing and collaboration to take place?

One approach could be prioritizing virtual/hybrid conference models. The pandemic forced events to go online, proving that meaningful meetings and presentations can indeed happen remotely. Virtual options should be expanded even for in-person conferences, reducing the need for every participant to travel. Sessions could be live-streamed, with only a core group of essential personnel present physically.

Video conferencing tools have become extremely capable, allowing real-time engagement, Q&A sessions, and even virtual “hangouts” for more informal networking. Screen-sharing capabilities enable effective collaboration on documents and presentations.

For conferences that still require significant in-person attendance, carbon offsetting schemes could be implemented, with a percentage of registration fees going towards environmental initiatives like reforestation or renewable energy projects to counterbalance emissions.

Closer regional hubs could be set up to minimize travel distances – for example, CERN could have hosted the FCC meeting at its home facility, with real-time virtual links to partner labs and universities across Europe, North America, and Asia. Only core organizers and presenters would need to travel to the main Geneva venue.

Of course, no solution is perfect, and some compromises may be inevitable. But we must strive to strike a balance between the benefits of conferences and minimizing their environmental toll through creative approaches.

Scientific progress and knowledge-sharing are critical, but it would be tragically ironic if the very pursuit of that progress contributed significantly to rendering our planet uninhabitable due to climate change. As researchers, we have an ethical duty to lead by example in sustainable practices.

What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s worthwhile to send 100 delegates to the CERN FCC Week?

Quantum Soul
Quantum Soul

Science evangelist, Art lover

Articles: 150

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