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Lichter KE, Drew T, Demeulenaere S, et al. Environmental Outcomes Associated With Transition From In-Person to a Virtual Oncology Conference During the COVID-19 Pandemic. JAMA Oncol. Published online June 23, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2022.1925
As worldwide conferences have transitioned from in-person to virtual formats, benefits have been discovered including expanded access and equity.1,2 However, the environmental benefits associated with reduced travel remain largely uncharacterized. It is estimated that conference attendance accounts for 35% of a scientist’s total carbon emissions.3 Given that climate change is an increasing problem with regard to human health and oncologic outcomes,4,5 it is imperative to begin to quantify, understand, and promote sustainable practices. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2021 American Radium Society (ARS) Annual Meeting transitioned to a virtual online conference. We aimed to estimate the travel-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions associated with the transition of this meeting to a virtual platform.
Data regarding number of attendees and their home institutions from participants in the ARS Annual Meeting were collected from ARS for 2019 and 2021. Informed consent and study approval were not needed given the deidentified nature of the data collected in accordance with the Common Rule, and no specific reporting guideline was followed. The distance traveled per attendee to the 2019 location (Dana Point, California) and to the 2021 intended conference location (Lahaina, Hawaii) was estimated using the location of the home institution of each attendee. The mode of transportation was hypothesized based on distance traveled (automobiles if <300 miles and airline if ≥300 miles). Approximate CO2 emissions were calculated using the Environmental Protection Agency Greenhouse Gas Tools and the Department of Transportation Bureau of Transportation Statistics.6 For the 2021 virtual conference, the assumption was that no travel took place. For 2021, the estimated CO2 emissions were based on calculations for internet usage of 6 hours per day for the 3-day conference period and for food delivery of 5 miles for a single complimentary meal that was sent to each attendee.
A total of 590 conference attendees were identified, 252 in 2019 and 338 in 2021. No demographic data were collected. There was a 34% increase in attendance rate for the 2021 virtual meeting. For the 2019 in-person conference, the total CO2 emissions for all assumed methods of transportation was determined to be 170.5 metric tons of CO2, with a mean (SD) of 0.68 (0.21) metric tons of CO2 per attendee. Total 2019 emissions were equivalent to the annual emissions of 37.1 passenger vehicles (assuming that an average US vehicle travels 11 500 miles per year with a fuel economy of 22.0 miles per gallon). The total CO2 emissions that would have been incurred but were spared during the 2021 virtual conference were estimated to be 469.4 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of the annual emissions of 102.4 passenger vehicles. This total accounted for emissions associated with virtual online conference streaming (0.91 metric tons) and food delivery (0.70 metric tons).
Results of this cohort study suggest that the option of virtual attendance at professional conferences may be associated with reduced carbon emissions. Numerous alternatives to in-person conference exist including (1) hosting hybrid conferences with both in-person and online attendance options, (2) alternating annual meetings between in-person and online events, (3) having biannual meetings, and (4) establishing decentralized hub-and-spoke models with multiple regional conference venues. Study limitations include the lack of actual attendee purchased flight information (ie, flight route, layovers, seat class, and aircraft make or model). In addition, data analysis was primarily focused on travel emissions alone and is limited by the lack of inclusion of variables that contribute to conference emissions. Furthermore, the emissions spared in this model would not be realized if other use were to expand in a compensatory manner (ie, airlines fly with fewer passengers or attendees take other conference or vacation trips). Future studies investigating these variables are warranted. Recognizing that in-person meetings may likely continue in the postpandemic era, professional societies may wish to consider prioritizing sustainability and environmental outcomes and enacting these considerations in their planning.
Accepted for Publication: April 14, 2022.
Published Online: June 23, 2022. doi:10.1001/jamaoncol.2022.1925
Corresponding Author: Katie E. Lichter, MD, MPH, Department of Radiation Oncology, University of California San Francisco, 1600 Divisadero St, Ste H1031, San Francisco, CA 94143 (email@example.com).
Author Contributions: Dr Lichter had full access to all of the data in the study and takes responsibility for the integrity of the data and the accuracy of the data analysis.
Concept and design: Lichter, Drew, Demeulenaere, Yom, Bagshaw.
Acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data: Lichter, Demeulenaere, Wong, Mohamad.
Drafting of the manuscript: Lichter, Drew, Wong, Bagshaw.
Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: Lichter, Demeulenaere, Mohamad, Yom.
Statistical analysis: Lichter, Drew, Demeulenaere.
Obtained funding: Lichter.
Administrative, technical, or material support: Demeulenaere, Wong, Yom.
Supervision: Lichter, Mohamad, Yom, Bagshaw.
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: Dr Yom reported being Immediate Past President of the American Radium Society. No other disclosures were reported.
Meeting Presentation: This article was presented as an oral presentation at the 2022 American Radium Society Annual Meeting; May 20, 2022; Scottsdale, Arizona.