A new study at the University of Michigan (UM) reveals that replacement of huge, in-person gatherings by virtual conferencing due to the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant decrease in carbon emissions, but such online meetings still pose some environmental costs.
The study provides a framework for examining and tallying the carbon emissions of an online conference depending on factors including everything from energy utilized by monitors and servers to the resources utilized to manufacture and distribute the computers used.
It comprises a case study demonstrating that a May 2020 virtual conference conducted by the AirMiners carbon removal networking community generated 66 times less greenhouse gas emissions compared to what an in-person gathering in San Francisco would have otherwise produced.
The study also underlines steps that can be followed by online meeting hosts and attendees to bring down the related emissions further.
According to Grant Faber, a research assistant with the Global CO2 Initiative at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, the technique he developed demonstrates that the environmental effects of virtual conferencing are substantial, especially due to the high internet connectivity and usage of video conferencing.
There are projections that say by 2030, information and communications technologies may use more than 20% of the global electricity supply. And as time goes on and more and more people become connected to the internet for more energy intensive activities, such as Bitcoin mining, they’re only going to use more and more electricity.
Grant Faber, Research Assistant, Global CO2 Initiative, College of Engineering, University of Michigan
“It’s important to know the true cost of our online behaviors and, by quantifying it, we can take action. As an example, our AirMiners conference was able to estimate our impact and purchase carbon removal offsets to make the event carbon negative,” added Faber.
The system developed by Faber to gauge the energy usage from a virtual conference observes the following:
- Life cycle emissions: The resources and raw materials required to construct and distribute the computers utilized, as well as the electricity needed to operate them
- Room lighting
- Monitor energy usage
- Server energy usage
- Network data transfer—energy used by computers to upload and download data
- Emissions from conference-related website visits and seek engine queries
- Extra online meetings required for conference scheduling
Monitor and computer emissions are evaluated by tallying complete life cycle emissions depending on the number of hours they were utilized for the conference. Emissions from server use and transfer of network data were estimated using their respective energy consumption at the time of the conference.
Faber has outlined certain steps for both individuals and the industry to reduce the environmental effect of virtual conferencing. Industry could begin by enhancing the energy efficiency of the software and hardware used for the conferencing. That could have a trickle down impact.
Platforms like Zoom might be capable of decreasing data rates while conserving quality just by updating their servers and software. Data centers, network infrastructure and powering computers can be powered with renewable energy to significantly decrease emissions of virtual activities.
Individuals could avoid features such as gallery view, disable HD video and repair rather than replacing computers to extend their beneficial lifetimes.
In order to address climate change, we need to develop an awareness of the CO2 emissions associated with specific actions we take in our daily lives—similar to how we have learned to watch calories to maintain a healthy weight. Grant’s work quantifies this for the growing relevance of video conferences.
Volker Sick, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in Mechanical Engineering, University of Michigan
Sick is also a DTE Energy Professor of Advanced Energy Research and Director of the Global CO2 Initiative.
Faber, G (2021) A framework to estimate emissions from virtual conferences. International Journal of Environmental Studies. doi.org/10.1080/00207233.2020.1864190.