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The carbon debt of medical junkets

21st February 2007

Doctors should take the lead in reducing the carbon footprint of medical conferences, which generate thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide as delegates fly in to take part, according to a recent editorial in the British Medical Journal.

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The authors cite an estimate that the 17,000 delegates to the European Respiratory Society annual congress in Munich generated 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from travel alone, while the American Thoracic Society meeting in San Diego was attended by 15,000 delegates who generated an estimated 10,779 tonnes of carbon dioxide from air travel.

"Two years ago one of us was invited to a world congress in Australia. It was the classic free lunch - registration, hotel, and air travel paid by the organisers and all for a 15 minute presentation," write BMJ editor Fiona Godlee and Ian Roberts of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

"They did not offer to pay the environmental cost of the journey - 6-10 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents pumped into the upper atmosphere, where they would warm the world for a century."

They report that a request to video conference the presentation instead met with an 'astounded' reaction from the organisers, although attitudes appear to have shifted somewhat in the two years since that conference.

They call on doctors, whose primary responsibility is to protect health, to avoid contributing to global warming through unnecessary attendances at international conferences. "The threat to human health from climate change - through malnutrition, disease, and flooding - is substantial," they write, saying that the drying of Lake Chad is an example of how climate change is already affecting human well-being.

"Evidence that attending conference lectures improves practice is scant, and other methods are more effective," they say, applauding recent moves by conferences in Dublin and Barcelona to encourage video conferencing of their main events.

"But even if conferences were effective, who should decide if the benefits are worth the costs - a doctor from Colorado or a fisherman from Chad?" they ask.

 

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