Climate change threatens the future of humanity. It will also significantly impede our ability to conduct science, by destabilising societies globally. Aviation, including travel to scientific conferences, generates a huge carbon footprint. This must be addressed if we are to limit global warming to the 1.5-2C mandated by the Paris agreement of the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, and time is running very short: we are already at 1.2C of warming. This also means we must urgently transform the way we attend conferences. Although OHBM is only one medium-sized society, it is crucial to recognise that collective action has the power to change social norms, in science, and society more broadly. This has far-reaching consequences beyond the direct carbon savings of updating the meeting format.
In this report, authored by the Sustainability and Environment Action Special Interest Group (SEA-SIG), we analysed the carbon footprint of previous Organisation for Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) meetings. On average, attendees travelling to an in-person meeting generate over 10,000 tonnes of carbon – as much as 1250 average German residents would emit over the course of one year (mean of 8t in 2021). Virtually all these emissions are eliminated when we meet online instead. The location of in-person meetings also matters: setting the meeting in a place that requires more colleagues to fly long-haul very significantly increases climate costs by up to three times as much as the lowest-carbon locations.
We can do things differently, however. Hybrid meetings - accessible both in-person and online - are set to become the norm for academic societies around the world. Although driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, hybrid meetings should be here to stay, because of the many other benefits they bring to both accessibility and sustainability. There are also several other alternative meeting formats being explored by academic societies, such as a biennial meeting (every other year), and multiple regional hubs, in which attendees travel to their nearest geographical meeting location.
Using aviation carbon footprint modelling, we calculated the carbon savings that OHBM would make under these future meeting formats. We also determined the most climate-friendly locations for in-person aspects of future meetings and the least climate-friendly places. As a result, we recommend that all future OHBM meetings are fully hybrid. We furthermore recommend that OHBM transitions to a multiple regional hub model (with hybrid attendance also supported), in locations specifically chosen to minimise long-distance aviation. We do not advocate carbon offsetting as a suitable alternative to tackling real-time and long-term reductions in aviation emissions.
We conclude that updating the way OHBM meetings are run for a post-pandemic, climate-crisis-era will save thousands of tonnes of carbon and send a crucial sign at a time of climate emergency. Furthermore, setting the meeting in locations that minimise the need for long-distance flying is critical. Finally, supporting colleagues to attend online and more locally will enhance accessibility, furthering the society’s mission to provide educational forums for the exchange of groundbreaking neuroimaging research. Importantly, as a scientific community we are in an ideal position to lead by example and experiment with new ways of sharing knowledge, including the way we attend conferences.
 Please note that the recommendations expressed in this report are suggestions by SEA-SIG, and are not necessarily reflective of all OHBM members’ opinions.