Published 28 June 2014 by Wolfgang Huang
Green Conferences: Per aspera ad astra
Inspired by last year’s motto and the passionate closing panel discussion on “Green Chemistry”, we decided that we wanted to spend some thoughts on how to make our meetings more environment-friendly.
There are of course many good reasons to think about greener conferences – you may have heard about sustainability, once or twice. But the history of the meetings provides a lot of inspiration and motivation itself. It was in 1961 when Count Lennart Bernadotte, spiritus rector of the meetings, initiated the “Green Charter of Mainau“. In 1970, he made environmental protection the lead theme for the Lindau Meeting that year. And in 1971, the German Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner Willy Brandt delivered a widely received speech on “Environmental Protection as an International Mission”. Since then, this theme has been a part of the meetings.
Step 1: Let’s have a workshop
So we started discussing and came up with an action plan. And as it often goes, the results were intimidating. The list of things we needed to do was long – very long. And it became clear that green conferences wouldn’t happen just by having an idea and deciding to do it. This topic would occupy us for quite some time.
Special thanks go, by the way, to my colleague Katja who meticulously identified and compiled all items in our plan.
Step 2:Problem identified, solution unclear
Environment-friendly conferences are sort of a paradox: Doing a meeting is in itself less environment-friendly that not doing a meeting. And there are more problems; here are a few examples:
- If you bring 600 young scientists, almost 40 Nobel Laureates, more than 100 journalists, and many guests to a meeting, then travel alone has a major negative impact, especially air travel and it’s CO2 emissions. So, what now? First: We have no control over the particpants’ travel, all we could achieve is nudging them into a certain direction. Travelling by train, for example, is much more environment-friendly than air travel, and that is a good solution for German participants (and the Swiss and Austrians as well). But it is quiet burdensome to travel from Australia to Germany by train. Some airplanes and air carriers are more environment-friendly than others, but in most cases, you don’t have as much choice as you would like to have when booking a certain route. Thus, reduction of CO2 emissiosn on an individual level is hard to achieve. All you can do is emission compensation – I’ll write about that shortly.
- There are also quite hard decisions to make: We had the idea not to issue press materials on paper, but rather on an USB key. But is an USB key more environment-friendly that 100 pages of paper? Maybe not, but you don’t find clear, reliable answers – they would also require that one knows the production parameters in detail. So we chose not to produce USB keys but rather to provide the material online only. Of course, an online service needs power, and one would also have to assess the environemental impact of all the computers and devices needed to provide and use it. So, is an online service more environment-friendly? Actually, we don’t know. We hope so.
- My favourite example: We discussed at some length wether we should provide a writing pad and a pen with the conference materials. It is kind of unecessary: Everyone has enough writing pads and pens already, especially if it’s not your first conference. I can’t remember when I actually bought my last pen. But if you don’t provide them, then people need to bring them – the need itself doesn’t disappear. And people would have to take them on the plane, too. So it seems likely that it is more environment-friendly to produce such materials where they are handed out, under controlled conditions.
- Costs: In most cases, eco materials are more expensive than standard materials. We are convinced that these extra costs make a lot of sense. But: a) You can only spend the money that you have, and b) there are problems related to how the Lindau Meetings are funded. Our funds mainly come from governmental institutions, foundations, project funding, donations, etc. In many cases, there are regulations on how the money can must spent, and quite often there are two relevant provisons: In some cases, procurement has to be done by tender, and the most cost-efficient offer has to be selected. Plus: Many regulations stipulate that you may only spend money where “necessary”, and if you spend your money on “unnecessary” things, your funding can get reduced. So, if we only allow organically grown vegetables (at extra cost) for our catering, are these extra costs “necessary”? If you feel like agreeing immediately: the accounting person at your funding institution who checks the receipts might judge differently. Obviously, there is still a lot to discuss and clarify.
- Donations in kind: The Lindau Meetings are proud to have several very engaged supporters who contribute to the meetinsg with donations in kind. For example: The car shuttle fleet for the Nobel Laureates, the internet tent, the conference bags, the drinking water, the boat trip to Mainau, and much more. In many cases, we have no influence on how environment-friendly those products and services are, but we are in contact with all supporters and encourage them to provide environment-friendly solutions. For example: The Volkswagen Group will provide only hybrid cars this year, and we are working on introducing e-cars as well. As the power provided by Lindau’s municipial energy supplier is produced from hydroelectric powerplants, this should help to improve our eco balance.
Step 3: First things first
Air travel has the largest negative impact with regards to green conferences. If you can’t avoid it, then you can still compensate your it. To compensate your CO2 emissions, they are first being calculated based on your flight data. Then, this CO2 is saved somewhere else, for example by bulding low-emission power plants. Of course we at Lindau don’t build power plants, but we partner with atmosfair instead. Atmosfair is one of the most trusted providers for CO2 compensation projects. If you want to know more, pleasse visit their website. As travel organization of the young scientists is their own responsibilty, we asked them to consider using this service, making a donation. How much to contribute depends on the fligth, mainly it’s length. Short inner-European flights start at 5 €, but long intercontinental flights may cost up to 300 €. Of course, this was completely voluntarily, and the amount to be donated could be chosen freely. After the meeting, we will get a report from atmosfair on the amount donated, and will then report on the results. If you would like to make a donation now, please use the service below:
At the moment, we are unable to compensate the flights of the Nobel Laureates. We have calculated the costs at 30.000 – 40.000 €, and at the moment we simply don’t have these funds. We have planned, however, to compensate the flights taken by members of the Council and Foundation as well as the executive secretariat.
All our printed matters use FSC-certified paper. Our main paper, Munken Lynx, is a very eco friendly paper that is FSC-C022692 and PEFC-certified. We also buy CO2 compensation certificates for most of our printed matters. And we reduced the number of copies – let’s hope it will be enough. 🙂
Prof. Michael Braungart suggested (during the closing panel of last year’s meeting) that we should use different bags. For the upcoming 5th Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, we will introduce a new bag, which is made of recycled, recyclable plastic. It is also produced under fair conditions (SEDEX certified).
Not really new: We take care to use as much regional produce as we can, with organic vegetables whenever possible. One of the two meal options every day is also a fully vegetarian dish. And if you would prefer vegan dishes: we offer them upon request as well.
It was sort of a field test: The German engineering company Robert Bosch GmbH provided us 70 eBikes at the 64th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. An eBike may require more resources during production than a normal bike, but it still scores much better than a standard car. Plus: It also is a statement for downsizing, and maybe part of answer for urban mobility challenges.
Step 4: Work on the details & show stamina
Admittedly, we haven’t reached all our goals. But our list was extensive. We will continue our work on environment-friendly conferences in the future, and hope to get some more challenges solved. In case you have any sugestions, please do let us know.