Should you give up congresses to reduce your carbon footprint?

March 1, 2007

It is fascinating to observe a new phrase or slogan becoming established in a language. In some cases, this appears to happen virtually overnight, while in others it can take years for a phrase to enter daily use.

It is fascinating to observe a new phrase or slogan becoming established in a language. In some cases, this appears to happen virtually overnight, while in others it can take years for a phrase to enter daily use.

One of the more recent additions is the term carbon footprint, which is now used widely in the media. According to carbonfootprint.com, it is a measure of the impact that human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, as calculated in units of carbon dioxide.

This is a clever and powerful phrase that underlines how each of us leaves an indelible mark on the planet, and makes us think twice about our lifestyle choices. In an article in December 2006, Collin Dunn on treehugger.com estimated that the love of burgers in the U.S. contributes between 428 and 465 kg of greenhouse gas per person per year. This is the rough equivalent of the annual carbon output from 7500 to 15,000 sports utility vehicles, assuming that 300 million U.S. citizens eat three burgers a week. Dunn speculates that Carbon McCredits may soon appear on menus across the world.

Air travel is high on the list of chief polluters, and as the conference season begins again with ECR in Vienna, it is only right for all of us to ask whether a trip is essential and to consider how we can minimize the environmental impact of our journey. Pressure is growing to cut down on short-haul flights. The most polluting part of a flight is take-off and landing because this is when the most fuel is burned.

Using the calculator available at carbonfootprint.com, if you were to take five short-haul flights within Europe and two medium-haul flights to the east coast of North America, then your personal share of CO2 omissions would be 5600 kg. Add to this secondary factors such as food and drink and recreation and services, and the total footprint is 11,500 kg.

The Web site would urge you to offset this footprint by planting eight trees, although the accuracy and value of both the calculation and the means of redress are surely open to question.

It is important to retain a sense of balance here. It would be wrong for congress delegates to feel guilty about making trips that are necessary to update their knowledge and that will ultimately benefit patient care. By attending, they are stimulating their minds and invigorating themselves. Compared with the environmental impact of factories in China, India, and elsewhere-and even the burger-eating habits of Americans-conference travel has a fairly negligible effect on climate change.

However, a vast amount of online learning can now be done free-of-charge, as the feature article in this issue shows. Along with growing environmental awareness, this capability looks certain to put greater pressure on conference organizers to boost the quality of their events.