Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor have been examining the carbon emissions of virtual conferences and have concluded that while their carbon footprint is greatly smaller than that of a live event,  it is not zero.

“It is all too easy to ignore the materiality and energy consumption of the Internet, as so much of our time spent using digital devices feels like it takes place in an abstract, incorporeal space,” stated Grant Faber, a graduate student at the UMichigan, who conducted the analysis.

Faber and his team began by analyzing a virtual conference that dealt with carbon removal and sequestration. Due to the nature of the topic, the organizers wanted to calculate the climate impact of the conference so that they could purchase offsets to make it carbon negative. The researchers gathered information on emissions associated with the computers, monitors, and desk lights used by conference attendees; video streaming during the conference and search engine queries and website visits made as a result of the conference; and pre-conference planning meetings, which were also conducted virtually. They concluded that the conference generated the equivalent of 1,324 kg of carbon dioxide emissions. Of the total, 64% of emissions came from network data transfer, 19% from the pre-conference planning meetings, and 11% from computer use during the conference.

There are a number of actions that can be taken to reduce these emissions. Participation in virtual events can have reduced climate impact when individuals purchase renewable electricity for their home, replace their computer less often, and choose lower quality video feeds. Tech companies can develop more durable, repairable computers; use less emissions-intense energy and materials; and build more energy efficient Internet infrastructure. Governments can aid in the process by designing policies to promote such actions.

“While virtual meetings and conferences are generally far superior to physical gatherings in terms of emissions, there is still a considerable amount of emissions that can be attributed to virtual activities,” said Faber. “We can calculate these emissions, and individuals, companies, and governments can take action to reduce them.”