Posted by Vita Sinclair
Wed, 25 Apr 2012
I can nearly stretch my legs out in front of me and to my left the window spans a good metre across. In these times of austerity, when most of the perks of international travel have evaporated, you might think this is a rather luxurious journey back from the IFMSA. Unfortunately, my journey is not an hour or two as one might expect from Prague. It is four days during which I will pass through Dresden and Amsterdam before finally arriving in London. That low carbon voice in my head, not content with costing me the pleasures of eating meat, has now set me back nearly a week and close to £200. (Solidarity and a similar soft spot for the climate mean it has cost Felicity this too and I am glad of the company).
In my travels across the continent, I have had time for some considered thought. And the primary one is this. Felicity and I were one of only a handful of delegates at the European meeting to take the train. And this, in the continent where rail travel is supposed to be the best in the world. Felicity even recalls the question being asked ‘carbon footprint? Do you mean what shoes I wear?’. I was disappointed by this state of affairs. Being part of healthy planet for several years now and campaigning at the UN climate talks last year, I was perhaps engaging in a little too much optimism about the level of awareness of climate change. At the IFMSA, where 12,000 exchanges take place per year as well as 5 regional and 2 global meetings, carbon seems a pertinent topic to raise and one I had hoped the organisation would be more aware of.
Healthy Planet has been advanced at the IFMSA before and is now an official project. But to me, the health implications of climate change didn’t seem to be fully understood by many of the delegates and my choice not to eat meat and travel by train, I suspect came across as bizarre if not positively mad. In a bid to restore some degree of faith in the sanity of our delegation, I presented on Healthy Planet in the standing committee on public health and the standing committee on human rights. I wasn’t sure how well it had gone down and It’s never easy to guess how people will respond to the idea that as a health professional, not only is your patient your responsibility, but the climate too.
But to my delight, delegates from first Switzerland, Malta and then the Netherlands approached me about setting up Healthy Planet in their own countries. Spurred on by their enthusiasm, I arranged a meeting for interested countries to discuss what they hoped to achieve, what support they felt would be useful from the UK and how they could support one another. Nine countries turned up including Switzerland, Hungary, Croatia, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Romania and Greece. Starting a branch in a new country is different to simply a branch in a new city and it is difficult to know how appropriate UK advice can be. Our brand new Healthy Planet national committee have been working hard on resource packs for new branches and I hope with some tweaking and input from our fledgling Healthy Planets abroad, we can create a start-up pack for branches outside of the UK as well, making the process of bringing climate advocacy home a little easier.
None the less, the question of how to reduce the carbon footprint of the IFMSA remains. For an organisation dedicated to health globally, the impact of carbon on health could receive more attention in conference planning. Areas Medsin are trying to cut down on at the moment are:
1) The amount of meat we serve to delegates. Farming livestock produces a lot of carbon emissions so going vegetarian for two days makes a big difference.
2) packaging. Encouraging delegates to bring mugs and providing water fountains rather than water bottles.
3) unnecessary printing. A difficult one when tying to inform your delegates of conference goings on but putting as many resources online as possible can help.
4) encouraging rail travel where possible. Medical students are not known for their free time but if at all possible I can promise it’s worth it to stop by some cities along the way and know you are saving the climate at the same time.
5) housing delegates in green hotels – less air conditioning, energy-saving light bulbs and fingers crossed green-banking.
Some carbon cost is unavoidable for large conferences like the IFMSA general assemblies and as a of meeting place for students from all over the world to share ideas, it is hard beaten. As ever, it is the difficult balance of practicing what you preach within a busy schedule and a limited budget. It is to these challenges that the IFMSA must rise through collaborative change within itself. The expansion of Healthy Planet internationally is just one success and I hope that as a greater number of countries join, more ideas will be generated and our voice will become stronger.