BCLA Perspectives

Professional Development in a Time of Accelerating Environmental Crisis

Like many, I am worried about our environmental crisis and whether we can achieve the transformative change necessary to avoid catastrophic impacts within our lifetimes and those of our children and grandchildren. Often, when we think about transforming how we live we think first of making small changes in our personal lives, but to confront the climate crisis, every aspect of our society, economy, and organizations must change. What does this imply for our professional associations and professional development activities?

Worldwide, we have already surpassed 1°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels (IPCC, 2018), while warming across Canada is at 1.7°C, and in the north, 2.3°C (Bush, 2019). In addition, the biodiversity and ecosystems on which we all depend are declining at unprecedented rates, with over 1,000,000 species threatened with extinction (IPBES, 2019). In order to limit warming to less than 1.5°C and avoid the worst impacts of catastrophic climate change, including more intense forest fires, drought, flooding, food insecurity, and extreme sea level rise, scientists have clearly stated that we must make immediate, transformative change in every part of our lives. This includes decreasing global emissions to a minimum of 45% below 2010 levels by 2030 and net 0 by 2050 (IPCC, 2018). To ensure a liveable, stable, and equitable future, we must push for significant widespread change rather than continue business as usual.

When considering my own use of resources, I find that professional development is my most significant single contribution to the climate crisis. In the three years since I started working full time as a librarian, I have had the privilege to attend three conferences for professional development in other Canadian cities, travelling from Vancouver to Edmonton, Toronto, and St. John’s. Through these conferences I have met with colleagues from a variety of organizations, attended inspiring sessions and continuing education seminars, and explored new cities, and I am very grateful for the work of the conference planning committees and hosts of these events. However, my professional air travel to these conferences resulted in 3.723 tonnes of CO2 emissions, not including the emissions and impact of my taxi rides, food consumption, waste, etc. (Less; ICAO). To put that in perspective, using the Ecological Footprint Calculator I estimate that I produce roughly 1.9 – 2.2 tonnes of CO2 from most other parts of my life over the course of a full year. Although my professional travel has been fairly modest, it is still unsustainable and part of how I participate in an unequal distribution of wealth and resources. It is the result of the privilege that comes with a job that pays well and supports professional development, and of living in a country where air travel is considered normal. I find myself concluding that the benefits are not worth the environmental costs.

Recently, I contacted Seth Wynes in the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia after seeing his work profiled in UBC’s alumni magazine and CBC news. He suggests that although there are small ways to begin decreasing emissions from air travel, we must actually reduce air travel in order to reach safe climate targets. He argues that “academics should lead by example in reducing air travel” and that given the severity of the crisis, the most appropriate response is to aim to make substantial, high impact changes. In a study of professional travel at my institution, UBC, Seth Wynes and Simon Donner estimate that business-related air travel emissions account for 63-73% of annual emissions and that the majority of air travel is for conference attendance (Wynes, 2018). Therefore, a substantial portion of the emissions created by UBC are not from core human needs but activities that are beyond the reach of most people in the world. It also means that if we were to cut out travel, we could make very strong headway on the drastic cuts to emissions that the IPCC clearly states are necessary.

Conference attendance requiring air travel contributes enormously to our use of far more than our fair share of global resources. But we also have examples of other approaches. 16 year old activist Greta Thunberg, for example, refuses to fly to speaking engagements, and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May gained attention a few years ago for her whistle-stop Via Rail election campaign across Canada. How can we reimagine conferences to make them more sustainable?

The most effective strategy is to use our roles as conference organizers, hosts, and attendees to change how we offer and consume conferences and professional development. For example, we can host smaller, local conferences and attend both library and non-library related local conferences. For me, that might mean attending the BCLA conference, or a local conference on health research or project management. We can also reinvent in-person conferences as virtual conferences, eliminating not just carbon intensive travel, but also the costs associated with travelling, thus potentially reaching colleagues with smaller professional development budgets and those who are unable to leave their workplaces and homes for multiple days.

Changing in-person conferences into virtual conferences might seem daunting but this is the level of urgent change demanded by the climate crisis. The necessary technology exists, we just need to use it to build professional development opportunities that preserve many of the benefits of our current systems, and perhaps even increase their accessibility. A number of library associations such as the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Medical Library Association already offer different forms of virtual conference attendance and access. In addition, climate change scholars have developed tested formats such as the Semi-Virtual Conference Format, Nearly Carbon Neutral format, and the Around the World Conference format that could be implemented in library conferences.

Some strategies for making virtual conferences work include:

  • Making use of an established format
  • Hiring audio-visual and website/app support, an expert in accessibility, and perhaps a virtual conference planner
  • Local gatherings that attendees could access using low carbon transportation in order to view a virtual conference together and make space for discussion, meeting with colleagues from other institutions, and socializing
  • Productive sessions such as edit-a-thons that increase engagement, learning, and purpose
  • Engaging exhibitors online through lightning talks, mini workshops, and demos
  • Encouraging employees to prioritize local meetings and forgo long distance travel, and ensuring that library staff can ‘attend’ digital conferences, webinars, workshops, and classes during normal work hours

These are just a few ideas and it is likely other members of our community have knowledge and experience that would add greatly to this discussion. As our profession more actively factors our environment into our decisions and discussions we will together highlight other ideas, perspectives, and solutions to help us change.

The need to radically shift how we live and work intersects with our profession’s values and commitment to serving our communities, social justice, and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. The United Nations’ IPCC and IPBES reports focus on the need to make changes that address social inequalities, enable sustainable development and stability across regions, and recognize and prioritize Indigenous leadership and experience in this area. Indeed, these crucial reports, and the work of climate crisis researchers whose work is in cultural and institutional change, should underpin and inform our profession and our professional development going forward. As I think of libraries engaging with the climate crisis in ways that we have not done before, I am very much inspired by our values of social service, learning, and community building. I believe our expertise in education, technological change, evidence based decision making, and social justice can help us to create cultural change wherein our environment and our impact on current and future generations is a priority in all of our decisions.

We all share this responsibility, but thankfully our values provide us with the direction and passion that we need to face these challenges. By acting we can not only build a strong and equitable future, we can give ourselves the gift of hope.



Bush, E. & Lemmen, D.S. (Eds). (2019). Canada’s changing climate report. Ottawa: Government of Canada. Retrieved from https://changingclimate.ca/CCCR2019/

Global Footprint Network. Ecological Footprint Calculator. Retrieved from https://www.footprintnetwork.org/

ICAO: International Civil Aviation Organization. Carbon Emissions Calculator. United Nations. Retrieved from https://www.icao.int/environmental-protection/carbonoffset/

IPBES: Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. (2019). “UN report: Nature’s dangerous decline ‘unprecedented’; Species extinction rates ‘accelerating.’” United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Retrieved from https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/

IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2018). “Summary for policymakers.” In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Geneva: World Meteorological Organization. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/summary-for-policy-makers/

Less. Offset My Flight Calculator. Bullfrog Power Company. Retrieved from https://www.less.ca/en-ca/flights.cfm

Wynes, S., & Donner, S. (2018). Addressing greenhouse gas emissions from business-related air travel at public institutions: A case study of the University of British Columbia. Victoria: Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, University of Victoria.

Helen L. Brown is a Reference Librarian at the University of British Columbia Library