Feature Stories

Katie Lichter and Sophia Labeko, June 2022

Virtual Oncology Conference Reduces CO2

As worldwide conferences have transitioned from in-person to virtual formats, benefits have been discovered including expanded access and equity. However, the environmental benefits associated with reduced travel remain largely uncharacterized. Katie Lichter, MD, MPH, resident with UCSF Department of Radiation Oncology focused her Carbon Neutrality Initiative fellowship project on quantifying the environmental benefits of reduced travel. She co-authored a paper published in JAMA Oncology.

It is estimated that 35% of a scientist’s carbon footprint, comes from travel required for in-person conference attendance. “Given that climate change is an increasing problem with regard to human health and oncologic outcomes, we felt it is imperative to begin to quantify, understand, and promote sustainable practices,” says Lichter (pictured right).

The project estimated the travel-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the transition of a single oncology conference, the American Radium Society, to a virtual platform, using attendee data from the 2019 in-person and the 2021 virtual conferences. The virtual conference was found to reduce CO2 emissions by nearly 470 metric tons, the equivalent of taking approximately102 passenger vehicles off the road for one year.

The findings emphasize the importance of considering the environmental impact when hosting conferences in the post-COVID era. Lichter and her co-authors suggest alternative options to consider:
1) permitting in-person and online attendance options;
2) hosting biannual in-person meetings;
3) alternating annual meetings between in-person & online events
4) encouraging alternative low-carbon forms of transportation for those coming in person; and, 5) establishing hub-and-spoke models with multiple regional conference venues.

Incorporating options for virtual attendance at academic conferences can significantly reduce carbon emissions. We encourage UCSF departments, health professionals, and professional societies to investigate and promote greater sustainability of conferences and meetings.

Next time you are hosting or attending a conference, consider ways to reduce your impact:
One-pager for hosting a conference
One-pager for attending a conference