Issue Five (June 2022)

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June 2022

Conferences and Sustainability

Earth Day was when I started thinking about the conferences, travel, and sustainability. I had just opened a tab on my browser and instead of a fun Google Doodle, I saw a sobering image of a retreating glacier in Sermersooq, Greenland with before and after images of devastating climate change in just two decades. Viewing the tangible evidence of climate change made me upset, sad, frustrated, and ashamed of the outsized negative impact we humans have on this beautiful planet.

I’ve read enough about environmental activism to know that the message I bring to you can’t be too gloomy; too much negativity and we who care will just curl up like pill bugs, too depressed to move. So, let’s acknowledge the glaciers, fires, catastrophes (deep breath) and let’s also acknowledge that earth has enormous capacity for resilience and remind ourselves about the many ways we can do better. Find inspiration in the obvious symbolism of the spring and summer months, bright green leaves, singing birds, and busy bees. I also encourage you to find inspiration by taking action. If you can resist the urge to roll into a ball and instead start small with some easy changes, you will start gaining some momentum and the problems won’t feel as insurmountable.

Let’s talk about ways to earn some easy wins. Did you attend the AIC Annual Conference this year? If you did, I hope that after so many months of disrupted, canceled, and limited social interactions, you experienced a tremendous endorphin rush from reconnecting with friends and colleagues. Do you have other conferences or work-related travel planned? The AIC Sustainability Committee along with AIC Vice President Corina Rogge assembled a list of ways to make travel and conference attendance more sustainable. Check out the suggestions here. I hope small improvements like these make you hopeful, inspired, and motivated to think about even bigger ways to make changes in the future.

Now let’s talk about impact. If we are talking about the major source of carbon emissions from conferences, we are talking about air travel. Hard stop.

Some of the emissions I would produce if I had attended the conference this year are on the graph below.

Conference Emissions.png

Conference attendance emissions for author, traveling from Detroit to LA in May 2022

Notes on these calculations:

1. This value was determined using the personal carbon calculator on Terrapass. The Terrapass value is similar to the value determined using a similar calculator on MyClimate.

2. The taxi emissions were calculated using google maps to determine the shortest mileage from my home to the Detroit airport, and then LAX to the Westin hotel. Gallons of gasoline used were calculated using an estimated gas mileage of 20 miles per gallon. The gallons of gas used were translated into CO2e using the Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies calculator on the US EPA website.

3. Hotel emissions were determined using the Hotel FootPrints calculator, which uses a hotel’s address and star ranking (the Westin is a 4-star hotel) to estimate emissions.

4. The emissions data for a low carbon diet is based on a value used by the University of Michigan Office of Campus Sustainability.


Air travel produces enormous carbon emissions as well as other pollution that intensifies global warming, and physics is not on our side. My round-trip plane ticket from Detroit to Los Angeles would have released about 2,500 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Is 2,500 pounds a lot? Yes. The graph below compares the carbon emissions of that one plane trip to other sources produced in one year. The plane ticket emits more than my entire yearly commute. And about a quarter of the emissions created by heating my 2500 sq-ft home that houses four people in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the furnace runs 8 months of the year.

Emissions compared.png

Carbon emissions output comparison for author: conference attendance vs yearly energy usage

Notes on these calculations:

1. This value was determined using the personal carbon calculator on Terrapass. The Terrapass value is similar to the value determined using a similar calculator on MyClimate.

5. My household natural gas emissions are based on my actual natural gas usage, in CFCs, as listed on my 2021 utility bills. I converted the CFC value into CO2e using the EPA equivalencies calculator.

6. My household electricity-related emissions are based on my actual kWh of usage as listed on my 2021 utility bills. I converted the kWh into CO2e using the EPA equivalencies calculator, which uses a national average emissions factor for electricity production.

7. Emissions from my yearly gas-powered commute are based on the distances I drive on a normal work day. The distance was converted into gallons of gas used based on my car’s reported average of 25.5 mpg, and the gas used was converted into emissions using the EPA equivalencies calculator. The calculations are based on driving 5 days a week for 52 weeks without subtracting for holidays, vacations, or other absences.


Where does that leave us; possible alternatives? I am not suggesting that we completely cancel in-person conferences. I am imploring us to demand major changes to how we plan and attend conferences and think creatively about how we can make our conferences more sustainable, economical, and equitable as we go forward.

First, let’s look at what we get out of attending in-person conferences:

  • Dissemination of scholarship through audio and visual rich presentations and posters with the opportunity for interactive follow-up, questions, and discussion, both formal and informal
  • Networking, maintaining connections with colleagues, establishing new connections.
  • Staying current with the vendors who serve our profession
  • Doubling up travel by:
    • Participating in workshops and tours offered by the conference
    • Adding research trip(s) unrelated to the conference
    • Coordinating the conference with a job/internship interview
    • Combining work with pleasure and extending the stay as a vacation


One of the most significant things we can do to lower the environmental impact of our entire profession is to offer a robust virtual alternative to in-person conferences. With thoughtfulness and innovation, a virtual conference alternative can accomplish most of what an in-person conference achieves. UC Santa Barbara Professor Ken Hilter proposes a thoroughly researched Nearly Carbon-Neutral (NCN) Conference Model, which has already been used multiple times. His vision of a NCN conference is not a hybrid solution where the virtual option is just a long Zoom version of the in-person experience. (Sort of like when the vegetarian option is a weird meatless chicken-ish nugget, instead of being a fully realized plant-based entree.) The NCN conference identifies the objectives of a scholarly conference and creates a virtual space for those goals to be accomplished differently, including recorded presentations that are viewable for an extended period of time and the use of online message boards to encourage discussion and discourse. Most participants who attended NCN conferences were positive about the format, especially the extended online discussions and highly increased international participation. The carbon footprint associated with using a computer (Zoom usage, for example, emits about 1.1lb of CO2 per hour) is miniscule compared to travel-related emissions. I encourage you to read about this model; it’s a paradigm shift, and a paradigm shift is what we need.

Speaking of a paradigm shift, perhaps after 50 years of large, centralized annual meetings, we should question the current practice. Can we shift to a more regional approach with a larger in-person meeting that happens every 3-5 years? Must our need to connect with each other face-to-face be combined with our goal of advancing scholarship through presentations and posters? Are there other, better, less economically prohibitive ways to network? Are there other, better ways to connect with each other?

Significantly, a virtual alternative increases equity and access to a wide variety of professionals who are often less visible for the very reasons that make in-person conference attendance challenging. Let’s consider all those who can’t easily leave home for 5 days; people with disabilities, cash-strapped students and emerging professionals, unemployed or underemployed professionals, conservators in private practice and others who must self-fund without paid leave, nursing mothers, new parents, single parents, parents of children with special needs, and other caretakers whose work-life balance just doesn’t allow leaving for days at a time. Let’s also consider the potential increase in international attendance for a virtual alternative that is not bound to a time zone.

Again, I am not proposing that we completely eliminate in-person conferences. When they happen, mindful planning to reduce air travel will make the biggest improvement. Two significant ways to reduce the collective carbon emissions of conference travel are:


And (of course) there are other ways to reduce the impact of conferences. Resources are widely available online, such as this article from the journal Nature describing some of the carbon reduction options for conference travel discussed here. I feel hopeful when I consider all the ways we can make meaningful improvements. Imagine attending a conference that was planned to be truly sustainable - a solar-powered, zero-waste-certified venue, low carbon catering, elimination of single-use and no-use paperwork and “swag,” a location in a walkable area where attendees can patronize locally owned restaurants. It IS possible!

In an environmentally-informed analysis, it makes no sense for me to emit as much carbon as some citizens of the world emit all year by annually attending a 5 day conference. Change is most difficult when it is forced. Before things get so bad that we are forced to make truly horrible choices, let’s think about adapting our professional activities in an intentionally equitable and sustainable way. Don’t be a pill bug, be the change.

–Amy Crist, amycrist@umich.edu, on behalf of the AIC Sustainability Committee


Looking for inspiration and information so you can effect change?

NEW(ish)! Join the AIC Sustainability Committee Online Community! This online forum is just like the other AIC forums (AIC Community Forum, AIC Global Conservation Forum, specialty group forums, etc.). The Sustainability Committee will be using it more frequently to help members stay up-to-date on sustainability issues. Here’s how to join:

Step 1: Log in (if you already have an account with AIC/FAIC) or create an account.

  • Visit https://community.culturalheritage.org/communities/community-home?CommunityKey=db18f6ad-17ca-4efb-b122-674a52cd5cdc.
  • Select the purple Login button in the upper right corner
  • On the login screen, select New User (if you already have an account with AIC/FAIC, simply log in and skip to Step 2).
  • Enter your email address and select Go.
  • Complete your profile. Fields marked with an R are required. The rest are optional. Skip any questions that do not apply.
  • Be sure to take note of the password you create. You will need it to log in to post to the Community.
  • Select the purple Online Community button after completing your account to be taken to the Community (or click here).


Step 2: Join the Community Select the purple Join Community button.

Step 3: Set your email delivery preferences.

A pop-up box will ask you to choose your email preference for discussions in the community. You have the following delivery options:

  • Real time: sends an email every time a new message is posted.
  • Daily digest: sends one email to you each day, consolidating all of the posts from the previous day.
  • No Email: allows you to be part of the group without having emails sent to you. You can still post and read others' messages by logging into the community site.

We recommend the Daily digest, as it allows you to follow the discussions without bombarding you with emails.

Step 4: Explore!

Sustainability in Cultural Heritage Preservation & Conservation Resource Bank Using the Zotero platform, we have compiled lists of resources, including peer reviewed articles, books, and websites, on topics ranging from temp and RH standards to materials used in treatments. Our library is public and can be accessed clicking the link. Know of a great resource that’s missing? Email our team at aic.sc.bib@gmail.com.

Sustainable Practices Wiki AIC-SC Webinars and Ask an Expert Video Series and our Sustainable Practices in Heritage Conservation YouTube Channel

Past Issues of Sustainability Now AIC Sustainability Events - click the link to integrate our calendar of sustainability-related events with your personal calendar.