Astronomers significantly impact the climate by traveling to conferences, shows study

Credit: Gokus et al.

In 2019, the global trips taken by astronomers to international conferences resulted in a substantial environmental impact, emitting a total of 42,500 tons of CO2.

This figure translates to an average of one ton of CO2 emissions per attendee for each conference, highlighting a significant concern for the climate.

This finding comes from a study led by Dr. Andrea Gokus of Washington University in St. Louis, along with PD Dr. Volker Ossenkopf-Okada from the University of Cologne.

They gathered data from all 362 known astronomy conferences that took place globally in 2019, analyzing the travel emissions associated with these events.

Their research, published in PNAS Nexus, presents a detailed look at the carbon footprint of scientific gatherings in the field of astronomy.

The study included a map that illustrates the distribution and scale of greenhouse gas emissions from these conferences.

It shows that the total distance traveled by all participants is roughly one and a half times the distance between the Earth and the sun—a truly staggering amount.

The map uses circles and squares to represent conferences and schools, respectively, with colors indicating the average emissions per participant.

Darker colors suggest higher emissions, generally tied to longer travel distances.

While the opportunity for networking and sharing new research at these conferences is critical for advancing the field, the study’s authors argue that changes must be made to mitigate their environmental impact.

They suggest options like hosting virtual conferences or selecting venues closer to the majority of participants to reduce the need for long-haul flights.

The researchers also stress the importance of inclusivity, pointing out that most astronomy conferences are held in North America and Europe. This geographic concentration can disadvantage astronomers from other parts of the world.

To address this, they propose hybrid formats and multi-location events that are connected virtually.

This would not only cut down on emissions but also make these gatherings more accessible to astronomers who might be constrained by budget or family responsibilities.

For example, if the 2019 American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle had been organized across four global hubs—Seattle, Baltimore, Amsterdam, and Tokyo—CO2 emissions could have been reduced by 70 percent. This approach would allow more astronomers to participate without the environmental and financial costs of international travel.

By adopting virtual and hybrid formats, the astronomy community can lead by example in reducing the carbon footprint of academic conferences while fostering a more inclusive and sustainable approach to global scientific collaboration.