Fuel Efficient Collaboration

In a current thread on the <a href="
https://listserv.umd.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=ecolog-l&#8221; target=”_blank” class=”regular”>ECOLOG-L listserv there’s a debate going on about the environmental impacts of academics travelling to conferences in far-off places to discuss the environmental state of the world (the current case being this week’s ESA conference in San Jose). On correspondent suggested we might be better off taking better advantage of the internet and teleconferencing, as suggested by E.O. Wilson. Several people have responded noting the virtues of physically attending meetings including the opportunities to meet face-to-face with potential collaborators, funders and students and to see presentations of data that may not be published for a couple of years hence.

Another correspondent suggested that delegates consider the form of transport they take to reach the meeting – trains are commonly held as being more fuel efficient than planes for example. This led me to the Fuel Efficiency in Transportation page on the ubiquitous wikipedia. Assuming this page is correct, it suggests that generally;

  1. Cycling (653 mpg) is more efficient than walking (235 mpg)
  2. European trains (500 mpg) are considerably more fuel efficient than planes (67 mpg)
  3. Planes (67 mpg) are actually more fuel efficient than the average US car (36 mpg), but less efficient than a hyprid such as the Toyota Prius (77 mpg)
  4. Travel by the average US car (36 mpg) is of comparable efficiency to travel on an Amtrak intercity train (39 mpg)
  5. Travel by Steamboat (12 mpg) or Helicopter (4 mpg) is only for those who don’t give a jot about carbon emissions

Here mpg = miles per gallon of gasoline, and these are rough comparisons for the average occupancy of the vehicle which don’t really consider things like the distance travelled. There are many other considerations that need to be taken in these comparisons as James Strickland shows in his examination of the numbers.

Of course, the problem with this discussion is that the two most important factors that people consider when deciding how to travel are not accounted for: Time and Money. Flying internationally (and in many cases on short-haul too) is, in general, more efficient in both time and money than travelling by train (though some would say less fun). I can see currently that the advantages mentioned above for attending a conference in person do make it preferable to teleconferencing or online conferences. Maybe if ecologists really want to be environmentally friendly when meeting to discuss how the natural environment works they’ll need to go that one step further and embrace meetings in virtual words such as Second Life. Businesses are now experimenting with virtual spaces where remote workers come together to collaborate, and whilst it may take time to perfect and get used to this way of ‘meeting’ it seems like an option for the future. Whilst ESA 2007 is held in sunny a San Jose, maybe ESA 2010 be held in a sunny simulated city…

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