We've just seen Salesforce and workday cancel large conferences due to the Coronavirus. Facebook has abandoned a global marketing event in San Francisco scheduled for next week, and the massive Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona was scrapped. The hit already to the global conference industry isn estimated at $500 million. Cramming large numbers of people into small rooms like lecture halls, classrooms and large rooms like conference centres has two major problems. First they have to get there, increasingly from all corners of the globe, exacerbating climate change. Secondly, the risk of accelerating contagion in a pandemic. There are many other reasons for questioning these old habits, and habits they are, but these two are serious, current, some would say existential, threats.
The Coronavirus has already resulted in a huge effort in China to educate people online, at home. Universities will see the stark consequences of projecting unending growth from the Chinese market. Travel restrictions apply to students – you don’t get dispensation because you have lectures to attend. Suddenly that forest of cranes and those student accommodation blocks look a bit wobbly.
More than this, some of the early viral spreads, for example in Germany, came from a training conference. They are almost the perfect vehicle for the spread. People fly in from all around the world. It only takes one infected attendee, and a few thousands fly back to their different continents and countries. Conferences are like cruise ships in that they cram people into a stuffy, confined space for a few days, then send them home.
Flying academics all around the world may seem like a virtuous thing only if you see academe as being immune from the moral charge of aiding climate change. It’s a huge business and, of course, people will defend such events to the death… which is starting to look like a possible outcome. Far too little use is made of conference tech, which is largely free or very cheap. The sharing of screens, documents and presentations has become trivial. The sight of a swarm of private jets at Davos literally disgusted ordinary people but that is nothing compared to the day in, fay our conference business. Let’s not kid ourselves that these are practical venues, the perennial attraction of Vegas, Orlando and Hawaii remain dubious.
Similarly with students, the enormous cost of flying, usually wealthy students, around the world or on Erasmus schemes, is often seen as a moral duty, whereas, it may turn out to be morally bankrupt. We should be encouraging students to study nearer to home, to stop excessive air and other forms of travel. Getting large numbers of students to turn up for lectures (actually very large numbers don’t turn up at all) is starting to look dangerous and dated.
Companies still send large numbers of employees to exotic locations for annual ‘conferences’, much of which can be achieved online. This has already happened in most large companies as online learning now has deeply embedded roots in these cultures.
Newspaper circulation has plummeted and my phone delivered an unlimited amount of knowledge and communications that., in the past, would have been infrastructure heavy and hugely wasteful. Paper production is a massive, global polluter on land, water and air. It is the third largest industrial, polluter in North America, the fifth biggest user of energy and uses more water per ton of product than any other industry and paper in landfill sites accounts for around 35% of all waste by weight. Recycling helps but even the deinking process produces pollutants. Paper production still uses chlorine and chlorine based chemicals and dioxins are an almost inevitable part of the paper production process. Water pollution is perhaps the worst, as pulp-mill, waste water is oxygen hungry and contains an array of harmful chemicals. Harmful gases and greenhouse gases are also emitted. On top of this the web has given us the sharing economy, where bikes, cars, rooms and so on can be reused and shared. It would seem as though we're nearing what Ausuble called 'Peak Stuff'. This is all good as the best type of energy saving is not using energy at all or at least minimising the effort and resources needed..
Huge numbers of people are now working from home, using conference technology and doing less ‘travel’. Huge numbers are doing degrees without going near a campus, except for their graduation. Rather than being the solution we may very well be part of the problem. Isn’t it time to make a pledge to reduce some of this waste and madness?
Policy Connect recommends that we support the UK’s digital economy to grow further through energy-saving technology innovation. Government, industry and the learning world must ensure our digital backbone is both efficient and effective into the future. To that end ICT solutions have the potential to enable a reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions of up to 15.3% by 2030. This also means that the public sector, with its influential spending power, must lead by example in taking forward an ‘energy efficiency by design’ approach to delivering digital services – that means education.