AFTER working solidly for 3 years over the COVID-19 pandemic without a proper holiday, my husband and I decided to fly to Europe over the winter of 2022 to catch up with relatives and enjoy a well deserved break.

But the decision did not come lightly for me. An international flight to Athens followed by several domestic flights to the islands made me reflect on my own carbon footprint. The effects of climate change are happening now and harming our planet, and consequently impacting human health.

Feeling guilty, I managed to convince my husband to travel within Greece by public transport and hire e-bikes whenever we could. The decision was great – the slower pace of travel allowed us to enjoy more; with our e-bikes we were able to access smaller villages, quieter beaches, forests and other parts of the islands where hired vehicles had to endure traffic, competition for parking, and hazard risk driving through single lane village roads.

These simple measures allowed us to feel a lot more comfortable knowing we had reduced our carbon footprint during our travels, but there is more room for improvement.

We all dream of travelling and discovering. However, unfortunately, tourism is contributing to 8% of the world’s carbon emissions and is projected to grow (here, here). Most of this footprint is from visitors from higher income countries.

What more can we do as a medical profession to reduce our carbon footprint during travel?

Medical conferences can attract hundreds of health practitioners from all over the world. The travel we choose is contributing to the climate problem we are facing. InSight+ has published several articles on how we can reduce our carbon footprint in health care systems. But what about travel to work, lectures, conferences and medical events, even locally within Australia and internationally?

The COVID-19 pandemic gave us the gift to rapidly move to e-learning and telehealth. Even though we value the interaction and deep connection we develop with colleagues at conferences, we have to be much more cautious of our carbon footprint as we are challenged by the climate emergency, now well recognised by the peak medical bodies.

The evidence about the fossil fuel emissions of passenger vehicles, particularly cars, and aircraft is well known and incontrovertible.

Passenger vehicles significantly contribute to overall greenhouse gas emissions. It is estimated that a typical passenger car that relies on fossil fuel such as petrol, gas or diesel will contribute to at least 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year, but this may vary according to the type of fuel and frequency of vehicle use. The more vehicles on the road, the more tons of CO2 released into the environment. Automobiles also produce methane and nitrous oxide from their tailpipes. Hydrofluorocarbon emissions are released from leaking air conditioners. These emissions all contribute to global warming. By contrast, electric and hydrogen vehicles do not release tailpipe emissions, apart from water vapour from hydrogen vehicles.

Commercial aviation operations in 2018 resulted in 918 million metric tons of CO2 being emitted into the atmosphere and contributed to 2.4% of the global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Between 2013 and 2018, there was a 32% increase in aviation emissions. Furthermore, aviation emissions release other gases such as nitrous oxides, vapour trails, and cause cloud formation triggered by altitude, that further contribute to the warming effect. Rapid increase in passenger numbers using air travel, especially with our growing population and flights becoming cheaper, will further increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Trains are a preferable choice of travel if possible. Trains release less carbon emissions than flights and passenger vehicles and are proving to be popular in many countries such as China, especially the use of high speed trains to commute from city to city. The majority of passenger rail transport activity in the world uses electric trains.

What can we do to help minimise our carbon footprint when we decide next to travel for pleasure, education or work purposes?

Over the COVID-19 pandemic, telehealth was rapidly adopted by the medical profession for consultations. Education events, lectures and even workshops have been delivered through telehealth or video conferencing. Most meetings and events were held via teleconferences during lockdown. They worked well, in my experience.

Conferences that went ahead during the pandemic were either held entirely online or as a hybrid model. Is there any reason why we need to go back to international conferences that are entirely in-person, with no online participation?

As role models, medical professionals play a vital role in this space. The pressure is on the for all of us to act urgently to rapidly address and mitigate the causes of climate change by reducing our carbon footprint.

The Victorian Government recently announced a big step forward in our renewable energy ambitions to include a renewable energy target of 95% by 2035, an emissions reduction target of 75–80% by 2035, and a publicly owned energy corporation. If delivered, these have to be positive steps forward for all states to take on board in our challenge to address climate change.

Associate Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM is a GP with over 35 years of clinical experience.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.

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All health and medical conferences should be hybrid, to reduce carbon emissions from travel
  • Strongly agree (41%, 17 Votes)
  • Agree (22%, 9 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (20%, 8 Votes)
  • Disagree (10%, 4 Votes)
  • Neutral (7%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 41

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13 thoughts on “Travel for work: let’s think about the climate

  1. Pina Gallo says:

    I cannot believe the negative comments that have come about when we are all trying to reduce our carbon footprint and air pollution that will only help improve air quality and the environment. Dr Kotsirilos has raised some valid and important points that we should all think about when commuting to work, or when travelling or for day to day activities eg shopping. It makes good sense!!!
    In turn, it will help improve the air quality, the environment and human health.

  2. Randal says:

    In response to A/Professor Vicki Kotsirilos:

    Many of those claims made are not supported (are even contradicted!) by your own BOM source. In particular, it is important to note that its ‘State of the Climate 2020’ has not found changes to the Australian climate that have been predicted by proponents of the hypothesis of impending anthropogenic climate cataclysm: no increase in cyclones (BOM actually reports a DECREASE, just as has been found for the Atlantic), no increase in droughts (despite all the hysteria each time there is a drought), and no overall change in rainfall (having risen in some regions of Australia while having declined in others).

    Other key points that are equivocal wrt concern and/or cause (i.e., there being good reasons to believe the changes have nothing to do with “climate change”, as in, resulting from a slowly warming planet:

    – rainfall changes (and compared only to the 1970s or more recently!) only during the winter half of the year (no change during the other, summer half of the year)
    – no claim of overall change in rainfall for the continent
    – a decrease in streamflow also found only for southern regions (while increased in the north!), the area of virtually all of Australia’s agriculture, increased agricultural use/output, scandalous water misuse (much caused by idiotic govt policy, such as buybacks), and intense state competition for resources (e.g., all along the Murray Darling) — known separate issues going back decades.
    – reported increase in “fire weather”, which is carefully worded — as distinct from change in area succumbed by fire, which overall has not changed for Australia, with regional changes additionally impacted by a negligent lack of historical control burns.
    – changes to Australia coastal sea levels so small that there has not been a reported increase in coastal flooding, but simply the non-empirical claim of an ‘increased risk’ of it (a projection rather than an empirical finding).
    – an apparent (though also controversial due to measurement practices) slight warming of the ocean, which despite all the hysteria has not killed off the Great Barrier Reef, this year found to be in the best shape ever! [Does this mean that the warming must have caused this optimal health, since every measure of (bad) change in the climate is now routinely touted as evidence of, and caused by, climate change?]

    The only unequivocal empirical finding the BOM reports arising from (global) warming is the statistical increase in “extreme heat events” — at least a straight-forward common-sensical finding given a rise in an average temp over time, but whose magnitude is disputed here in Australia due to controversy over selective mathematical manipulations of the data in attempts to account for poor measurement standardization and the heat island effect (cf. satellite data). Note that the BOM does NOT claim an increase in “heat waves” per say — most of the increase reported has been in single day events.

    As the saying goes, theories (as hypotheses) are only as good as their ability to predict. The predictions for Australia have been woefully wrong (Tim Flannery being the poster child), and indeed in a number of key respects change has been seen in the opposite direction as predicted. It is fallacious to ignore the lack of the expected to focus on whatever else changes, and because of the term “climate change” circle back with the tautological claim (by assuming that which one is attempting to prove) that the changes are therefore a result of…the “change”. Such a practice is made even more egregious when only looking at one region in the world. Proponents of cataclysmic climate change ceaselessly argue — correctly to a large extent — all the time that regional weather/climate changes contradicting their hypothesis (e.g., routinely dismissed record cold events throughout the world) are not valid since the issue is global. Pointing to regional changes — particularly when inconsistent w/ non-retrospective predictions — as evidence of ‘climate change’ as their cause is equally fallacious.

    For the most recent and collaborative research assessments of world trends in climate, the source most depended on by proponents of anthropogenic global warming theory has been for decades and is the UN’s IPCC reports — not the political summaries, but the scientific working group reports themselves. They do not support the notion that extreme weather events (except heat events themselves) have increased since the world has modestly and stably warmed since the late 1800s (modest as in, without *acceleration* — which predicted yet empirically unsupported runaway effect is a prerequisite for all predictions of impending cataclysm).

    Instead, once again, we see calls for action in the medical community that simply assume the cause, its signficance, and the efficacy/benefit of their proposed answers.

  3. Max says:

    Too many of the comments here hint at a smug virtue, with an unspoken ‘let them eat cake’ attitude to those who are not sufficiently privileged to have choices.
    The planet doesn’t care about the temperature – it has been both a lot warmer and a lot colder in the past (when, just quietly, man had no influence) so our efforts now are about humanity’s future.
    By all means try to reduce unnecessary carbon dioxide emissions, but not at the cost of the crippling of the very civilisation that succours humanity, and provides the only avenue for the innovation and industry for inevitable climate adaptation.
    There is an imminent energy poverty catastrophe that is staring us in the face for those prepared to open their eyes to see it, which will be a much more proximate disaster for extant humanity than any man-made effect on the climate a hundred years from now.

  4. Dave Jones says:

    While the author makes some perfectly valid points on the contribution of unnecessary travel to the burden of CO2 in the atmosphere (and other pollutants), I fear she is missing the elephant in the room:

    1) Not only are emissions from air and other forms of travel reducing significantly from the status quo of 30 years ago (and with the advent of battery-powered or better still H2 powered aircraft, this will continue to reduce, there is no analysis of the effectiveness of zoom meetings vs F2F conferencing with all the nuances that networking can provide.

    2) Does she eat meat? The meat industry contributes more than 30% of our total emissions and indeed keeping well fed while travelling Europe doesn’t get a look in on the CO2 calculator – when in fact it contributes significantly to overall generation of greenhouse gases due to growing food, methane production, slaughter, transport, packaging and consumption. You can hardly write a piece about the evils of a foreign holiday which out any consideration of the vast impacts that consuming meat has on the environment at large (and, btw, I am also a meat eater – but trying hard to reduce my intake).

    3) Finally, while smugly riding an electric bike, did she consider where this was made, the material used, the transportation costs (in terms of CO2) and indeed whether or not the charging of the bikes was from renewable sources – or just a good old fashioned fossil fuel power station?

    While I accept the tenor of the essay that reducing travel WILL reduce our carbon footprint, it is at best a rather simplistic and naive analysis which misses huge swathes (roughly 70%) of the other causes of carbon emissions and how we might reduce them by living our lives “better” (from the environmental point of view).

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a personal viewpoint voiced in this article, and not evidence based argument presented with pros and cons of any behaviour change. Let’s be honest, well done for your public transport use in Greece, and maybe a normal bicycle would have been better for environment and for health benefits, so next time consider that too. But, all this drama about flying, I take it economy class to save on emissions by using most economical travel form is really amusing on a couple of fronts. Firstly, it is a long way going on a wind steered boat to Greece, but hey Greta Thunberg did this. My amusement is, however, when I watch COP 27 on the news with all these private jets coming in and out of Egypt. Ha, they do not have scruples to say, use 1 plane for all from say EU, USA/Canada, etc
    Yes, mindful environment use is a must, but this is by switching off lights, except where you are in the house, keeping temperature not too low in summer, not too hot in winter, not wasting food, etc
    As to conferences, yes, hybrid is to increase participation for those who cannot attend as not enough leave, but there are advantages in face to face meetings. Travel to work, well, I live 5 minutes away from my work building, so walk everyday. If we all wish for this to occur, guess what, hospitals need to build accommodation blocks for their staff, and then when you sign to work in hospital/clinic, you are made to move in to provided accommodation.
    Will this work for you? Most will say no, but this is how you save on travel to work carbon footprint.

  6. Keren Witcombe says:

    I’ve been talking to the RACGP about this. Lots of un-necessary flying still going on, which isn’t good for human human or the environment. COVID couldn’t have done what it did if humans hadn’t flown it around the world so thoroughly and rapidly. I’m going to fly for first in 3 yrs next month, after much heart-searching, but am going to offset with Carbon Neutral and will try not to do it again for another 3. I rarely drive these days unless I have a passenger or heavy goods to transport. Lots of people seemed not to have even thought about the impact of their driving, which amazes me, with bushfires and flooding in the news nearly every day now.

  7. A/Professor Vicki Kotsirilos AM, MBBS, FACNEM, FASLM, Awarded Honoray Fellowship of the RACGP says:

    Thank you for your comments and for Dr Sue Ieraci’s comments, with whom I totally agree and very well worded.
    Many Australians are concerned about climate change, and are keen to explore ways in how they live and work to help reduce their carbon footprint. These may be small steps, but important ones. As Ediriweera Desapriya says addressing air pollution will benefit health. Air pollution from combustion fossil fuel emissions eg traffic related air pollution and coal fired powered stations are the same causes that are contributing to greenhouse gases. So a solution to reducing greenhouse gases is to urgently address air pollution eg moving rapidly to solar or wind powered energy. There are many other solutions that are beyond the scope of this article.

    In Australia, we have experienced a number of national disasters in recent times. Since 2019 we have experienced extensive bush fires, floods and a rise in mosquito borne infectious disease [due to floods and high rainfalls]. The science points to more frequent and extensive heatwaves within the last few years [see ]. There are multiple references, some listed below for those interested in reading more of the scientific findings and observations by expert bodies pointing towards rising worldwide temperatures and climate change.

    The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS) Statement on Climate Change provides a brief summary of climate change and the role of human action in causing this change, with a particular focus on Australia. Key points included in the AMOS position statement include:
    • Global climate is changing rapidly due to human activities, with global mean temperatures having
    increased by about 1.1°C since the second half of the 19th century. For Australia specifically,
    temperatures have warmed by more than 1.4°C since national records began in 1910.
    • Warming is already leading to dramatic changes in the global and Australian climate, with impacts
    on ecosystems and most aspects of human health, economic activity and wellbeing. These impacts
    will intensify with future warming.
    • Australia is highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, with many regions expected to
    experience intensified droughts or floods, increased heatwaves and extended bushfire seasons as
    well as increased coastal erosion and inundation due to sea level rise. Ocean warming and
    acidification will threaten coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.
    • Climate projections indicate that significant, urgent and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas
    emissions and fossil fuel production are required to limit global warming to the Paris Climate
    Agreement targets of well below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures with efforts to limit the
    temperature increase to 1.5°C.
    • Delays in reducing emissions will increase the practical and economic costs of avoiding dangerous
    climate change, and place a greater burden on future generations to adapt to higher levels of
    Climate science is based on the scientific method, using rigorous and thorough comparison of
    observations and theory underpinned by the independent peer review process.

    For more reading:

    Thank you

  8. Dr Fotios Karalis says:

    It makes good sense to consider less travel, if possible, to reduce vehicle emissions which are well known to cause air pollution. The less vehicles on the road and less planes in the air will help improve air quality which has direct positive benefits on human health. The population growth [now 8 billion people worldwide] will result in more vehicles on the road if we don’t make serious changes to how we commute to events, work etc.
    Commuting by public transport where possible, walking and using bikes or e-bikes means more exercise which has additional health benefits.
    Less fossil fuel emissions will also help reduce greenhouse gases which will ultimately help prevent climate change.
    The author makes good sense, is well intended and considerate, and we must all personally consider ways to help reduce our negative impact on the environment.

  9. Sue Ieraci says:

    The combination of commencing work in emergency telemedicine and then the onset of COVID has made me very much aware of the travel time and expense previously wasted. I now no longer travel to my primary place of employment ( which is virtual) and have both attended and presented at multiple meetings and conferences on-line, including presenting internationally from the comfort of my own home and computer.

    Do I miss the interpersonal interaction? Partly – but I also maintain this on-line and via social media so that friendships can be nourished without frequent face-to-face meetings. The previous rush to the airport for early-morning flights for a one-day national meeting now seems ludicrous when on-line meetings are so easy and efficient to conduct.

    Hybrid meetings and conferences are ideal, in my view. People watching remotely can contribute to questions on-line, and become part of the real-time discussion. Speakers with international expertise can present on-line without the expense of international travel or the hole in their diaries. Because these meetings are routinely now recorded with high quality audio and video, people who could not attend in real time can access the video later, in their own time. The right balance is not to totally ban travel for face-to-face meetings, but to reserve face-to-face for the most impactful or effective experiences, and maintain access on-line for other choices.

    I agree with the author about avoiding unnecessary emissions. Even the most ardent climate-sceptic must agree that air quality is better without engine exhaust. We must also consider the wasted expense and personal time involved in unproductive work-related travel.

    There are many important life experiences and relationships I would have missed out on if I had not travelled extensively prior to COVID (including meeting Dr Kotsirilos), and I hope these will never completely end, but I am more than happy to avoid unproductive travel. Here we all are, debating the topic without having to meet.

  10. Ian Hargreaves says:

    Presumably the e-bikes were made in China, using mined rare earths, and smelted with good old Aussie anthracite. Then shipped to Greece on a diesel-burning vessel (accompanied by a plastic safety helmet). At several times heavier than a standard pedal bike, a much higher carbon footprint for manufacture, shipping, and use. Even worse if charged from a fossil fuel grid, e.g. charging at night and touring by day.
    Perhaps the author could encourage a nuclear powered cruise ship industry, where one could travel between Australia and Europe with zero carbon emissions, and cruise the Greek Islands without a pang of guilty conscience.
    And of course, walking involves much lower personal injury risk than bicycling, as well as a lower carbon footprint.

  11. Ediriweera Desapriya says:

    Thank you for posting this valuable information.Systematic review and meta-analysis, (analyzing 41 studies, published between 1999 and September 2016), investigated the association between exposure to traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) and subsequent development of childhood asthma. This comprehensive review estimated statistically significant random-effects risk estimates with TRAP. Furthermore, multiple sensitivity analyses supported study findings and conclusions.
    Ref: Khreis H, Kelly C, Tate J, Parslow R, Lucas K, Nieuwenhuijsen M. Exposure to traffic-related air pollution and risk of development of childhood asthma: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Environ Int. 2017 Mar;100:1-31. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2016.11.012. Epub 2016 Nov 21. PMID: 27881237.

  12. Randal says:

    [with corrections]

    “The effects of climate change are happening now and harming our planet, and consequently impacting human health.”

    One critical problem here: the author’s own reference for this claim did not examine, nor does it quantify, any current impact of “climate change” (with all of that term’s non-specific, vaguely all-encompassing connotations) on human health. Like here, it simply assumes the (negative) impact and then sets about calling for costly action plans. Such is the circular nature of medical research on the subject.

    As even the IPCC’s reports continue to acknowledge, extreme weather events have not with any confidence increased worldwide (e.g., cyclones/hurricanes, droughts, fires, coastal flooding), and the statistical signatures that would reveal any such increase (let alone our reliable perceptions of such increase!) aren’t expected for at least another 20-30 years. Tangible negative health impacts from warming (first and foremost, changes in overall deaths) are understood to be downstream from changes in these extreme weather events.

    The top independent environmental economists (for example Yale’s Mendelsohn and former IPCC report lead author Tol) also report — based on IPCC assumptions — that a net cost of increased temperatures (versus net benefit for lower increases!) is not expected until approximately a 2C rise (not the un-peer-reviewed and arbitrary 1.5C), while the expected cost of attempting to keep temps from rising further outweighs the expected benefits for any goal below a 3.5C rise.

    There has been little quality medical research on the negative (let alone any interest in reporting the positive) health impacts of climate ‘change’, of any cause. And no consensus on any quantified claim. The Lancet’s own recent report on the health impacts of a warming globe has been rightfully slammed for its scientific laziness (or to be kind, blatant logical fallacies), most notably for a selection bias at the most basic level — claiming amidst its call to action an increase in heat deaths associated with recent past warming without even mentioning the NET NEGATIVE deaths seen due to the far greater number of lives saved from less cold (cold currently causing 10- to 30-times more deaths annually than heat), nor pause to consider that overall death rates from all natural disasters are known to have precipitously and consistently declined over the past century…by more than 99%. In their poor attempt at a rebuttal to the criticism, the report authors resorted to circular reasoning, assuming that which they were attempting to (empirically) demonstrate, saying (I paraphrase), “yeah, well deaths from heat will keep going up and eventually be greater than those from cold…”

    I for one will have no problem practicing medicine (and travelling leisurely) without regard to the infinitesimal theoretical harm I might pose with breathing…I mean, by my CO2 footprint.

  13. Max says:

    The most delicious irony is that we all fly in for a medical conference that includes a requisite session on Sustainability and Climate, seemingly utterly oblivious to the contradiction.

    If climate change is the existential crisis for humanity that it is portrayed to be, then it is hard to conceive of anything that could occur at any medical conference, ever – particularly if a virtual option existed – that could justify the carbon dioxide expenditure.

    But in that we are no different from any other group – climate compliance for thee, but not for me – because MY requirement to travel is obviously for an exceptional and justifiable reason.

Comments are closed.