Guest blog

Blog – Sustainable Travel to International Conferences

Blog by Adam Smith

Reading Time: 8 minutes

As the world grapples with the pressing challenges of climate change, our individual and collective responsibility to reduce carbon emissions has never been more apparent. This responsibility extends to all aspects of our lives, including our travel choices.

In this blog, I will not make you feel guilty, preach, or scold you for travelling to international conferences (because attending in-person is important). What I will do, is talk about carbon-offsetting, something I think everyone should consider when travelling to a conference, foreign or domestic, and no matter how you get there.

I’m sure you will have heard of ‘Carbon offsetting’, this is now done by governments on a grand scale, but to give you the basics. It involves giving money to projects that reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for the carbon footprint generated by your journey to and from the conference. By supporting initiatives that actively mitigate carbon emissions, we can counterbalance the environmental impact of our travel. Offsetting isn’t perfect, but it does serve as a bridge between unavoidable emissions and the broader goal of achieving carbon neutrality.

Travel, particularly air travel, contributes significantly to carbon dioxide emissions, which is a leading cause of climate change. Carbon offsetting allows us to take personal responsibility for our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and helps minimise the negative environmental impact of our journeys. By investing in verified offset projects (list at the end), such as renewable energy initiatives or reforestation efforts, we can actively participate in global efforts to combat climate change. So even if you start by choosing the lowest carbon form of travel, you can and should still consider offsetting.

Conferences bring together researchers from diverse geographic locations, and this of course requires rail and air travel, and resulting in substantial carbon emissions. This month’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) in Amsterdam, is a prime example, but it is far from being the only one. Thousands of attendees jetting in from all corners of the globe to exchange knowledge, share research, and collaborate on groundbreaking solutions in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease.

Let me ask you a few questions… are you attending the AAIC in-person? Did you choose the lowest carbon way of getting there? If you already booked your travel, did you calculate the carbon footprint of your trip? Below is a tool that can help with that.

How much was it?

For those planning to attend international conferences like the AAIC, I believe that is crucial for everyone to take personal responsibility and offset the carbon footprint generated by such travel.

The essence of international conferences lies in fostering collaboration, sharing knowledge, and collectively working towards solutions. By offsetting our travel emissions, we enhance the credibility of these conferences as platforms for positive change. Attendees can actively participate in sustainable practices, including carbon offsetting, and inspire others within their field to adopt environmentally conscious habits. Moreover, incorporating discussions on climate change and sustainability within the conference agenda can drive greater awareness and promote actionable solutions.

The collective impact of all of us travelling using low-carbon options and offsetting our travel emissions can be powerful. When thousands of attendees at the AAIC travel using the lowest possible carbon footprint and offset their emissions, it sends a strong message that sustainability is an integral part of combating Alzheimer’s disease (particularly when we know that air quality and pollution is a risk factor).

In 2022 when we got back to travelling after the pandemic, I realised that my carbon footprint for conference travel was terrible! But I didn’t want to stop attending conferences. I investigated what I could do about it and realised that offsetting isn’t as expensive as you might think e.g. I travelled to Mexico City for a conference in May. It cost me £54.00 to offset the carbon costs of attending that conference, and a recent car journey to Newcastle cost me £5.21. I could have got the train to Newcastle, but it was impractical due to my not living near a station, and the amount of equipment I had to take which brings me to an important point. Of course, before you even get to the point of carbon offsetting, you can start by choosing a mode of travel that produces the least amount of carbon in the first place, which is of course better. However, I understand that the lowest carbon travel isn’t always the easiest. I think…. it is okay to not always choose the lowest carbon option. But it is important that you at least consider the options, make an informed, and conscious decision, rather than simply heading to the travel booking website.

Earlier this year my University (University College London) published guidance for staff on ‘low carbon travel’. It also changed its travel policy to ban domestic air travel and extended that ban to include any location that is accessible via the Eurostar Train e.g. Paris, Bruges, Antwerp, Lille and Amsterdam.

The Eurostar Train service runs direct from London to Amsterdam via Rotterdam. It takes just 3 hours 52 minutes to get to Amsterdam Centraal and while costs vary the average price is £300.

Final thoughts… As we prepare to attend international conferences, such as the AAIC or any of the other conferences taking place in amazing locations, we must recognise the importance of offsetting our carbon footprints. By doing so, we embrace our role as stewards of the environment and champions of sustainability. Offsetting our emissions not only mitigates the negative impact of our travel but also helps set an example for others, fosters collaboration, and builds momentum for positive change.

I am not asking you to change your travel plans, or only attend online, or even take the difficult travel option. But at least check all the options, calculate your carbon footprint, and make a financial contribution to offset (yes, times are hard, but climate change is one of the reasons for that). There are lots of great projects, and while we wait for improvements to jet fuel, and more sustainable options for travel, these will really help to ensure we all are doing our bit to help the planet. Let us seize this opportunity to make a difference.

Click here for resources that will help you offset.

Making the Calculation

The easiest way would be to opt in when paying for your flights / rail ticket online. However, when WHICH checked, only four of the 11 most-used airlines were offering their own schemes – and the convenient option isn’t necessarily the best.

For example, Ryanair’s projects include tree planting in Ireland and Portugal. Yet these initiatives would offset less than 0.01% of Ryanair’s emissions, according to Professor Simon Lewis of University College London. He has branded the scheme ‘woefully inadequate’ and a ‘green gimmick rather than a serious attempt to slow down climate change’.

Instead of using the airlines’ schemes, those who want to offset their carbon emissions should go to non-profit Atmosfair. Not all airlines are included in its flight calculator, but it also gives you the average carbon estimate for your route. If you have been given a CO2 estimate elsewhere, you can type the value into Atmosfair’s ‘offset a desired amount of CO2’ calculator and make a one off payment. Another reliable source is ICAO’s calculator.

List of other Carbon Calculators:

Paying for the Offset

To make sure you choose an effective scheme, look for internationally recognised certification. VCS (Verified Carbon Standard) and Gold Standard are two you can trust.

A verified project will:

  • Have no negative impact on local communities – e.g. displacement to make way for a new wind farm or tree-planting project
  • Be monitored to make sure carbon reductions are achieved.
  • Do more than simply switch one fossil fuel for another.

Websites that allow you to pay to offset your carbon footprint:

Six ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

  1. Use Skyscanner – Its search tool will highlight the greenest flight for your journey with a leaf motif, alongside the percentage of CO2 saved. An investigation by Which? Travel found that passengers can make a significant carbon reduction by changing which airline they fly with.
  2. Fly economy – Business and first class are responsible for up to four times more CO2 per passenger. See which carriers came top in our survey of best and worst airlines.
  3. Choose greener aircraft – Look out for newer, more fuel-efficient models, such as the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and Airbus A350-900 and A320neo.
  4. Fly direct – Choose direct where possible. Taking off uses more fuel than cruising.
  5. Pack light – A heavier plane also guzzles more fuel.
  6. Take the train – Consider taking the train for short-haul journeys. The Eurostar emits around 90% less carbon than the equivalent flight.

The disclaimer and extra information for balance

Offsetting isn’t perfect, so I though we should recognise the issues to ensure balance. But essentially,  it is all about choosing the right offset programme:

  1. Additionality: One of the key principles behind carbon offsets is the concept of additionality, which means that the offset project would not have happened without the financial support from the offset buyer. However, it is often challenging to determine whether a specific project is truly additional and would not have occurred otherwise. Some offset projects may already be financially viable or mandated by regulations, which raises doubts about their effectiveness in reducing emissions beyond what would have happened anyway.
  2. Lack of permanence: Some offset projects, such as reforestation or afforestation initiatives, aim to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, these projects can be vulnerable to events such as wildfires, disease outbreaks, or deforestation, which can release stored carbon back into the atmosphere. This lack of permanence raises concerns about the long-term effectiveness of offset projects in mitigating climate change.
  3. Verification and accountability: The process of verifying and accounting for carbon offsets can be complex and prone to errors or misrepresentation. Some offset projects may overestimate the amount of emissions reduced or fail to account for factors such as changes in land use or natural carbon sinks. Without robust monitoring, reporting, and verification mechanisms, the integrity of carbon offset projects may be compromised, resulting in unreliable emission reductions.
  4. Delayed impact: Carbon offsets often involve long-term projects that take years to generate measurable emissions reductions. However, given the urgency of addressing climate change, immediate and substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are necessary. Relying heavily on offsets can divert attention and resources away from implementing more direct emission reduction strategies, such as transitioning to renewable energy sources or improving energy efficiency.

While carbon offsets can play a role in climate mitigation strategies, addressing the underlying causes of emissions and pursuing direct reduction measures should be prioritised i.e. travel using low carbon. I highlighted the Woodland Trust as one organisation to use to offset, as I know they do actually plant trees that won’t be cut down later.

AuthorAdam Smith

Adam Smith was born in the north, a long time ago. He wanted to write books, but ended up working in the NHS, and at the Department of Health.  He is now Programme Director at University College London (which probably sounds more important than it is – his words). He has led a number of initiatives to improve dementia research (including this website, Join Dementia Research & ENRICH), as well as pursuing his own research interests. In his spare time, he grows vegetables, builds Lego, likes rockets & spends most of his time drinking too much coffee and squeezing technology into his house.


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