The Events Industry is far from innocent when considering contributions to carbon emissions within our environment. The sustainable conference & virtual event management agency Meet Green reports with data going back to 2007 that “the typical conference attendee produces more than four pounds of waste and nearly 400 pounds of CO2 emissions a day.”
In this post we will cover:
- Carbon Emissions from Air Travel
- Carbon Emissions from Waste
- Carbon Emissions from Food Production
- How To Overcome The Carbon Impact of the Events Industry
- Going Virtual
- Going Hybrid
- Carbon Offsetting
- Making Event Menus More Sustainable
The Paris Climate Talks have been an event that has been heavily scrutinized, as flying in over 50,000 people seems like a great irony for those trying to hold the events industry accountable for their greenhouse gas emissions. The conference alone emitted over 300,000 tons of CO2. (To put it in perspective - think of one fully inflated hot air balloon, that is equivalent to about one ton of CO2).
Carbon emissions from events come from three main categories: travel, plastic waste and food production. \
Carbon Emissions From Air Travel
Many event organizers & marketers will advertise the amount of international attendees that came to their event. While this is wonderful for bringing diversity of people, perspectives and opinions to your in-person gathering, we fail to admonish those claims for the impact those attendees are having on the environment.
Reports claim that travel accounts for anywhere between 70%-90% of an event's total carbon emissions. The average event attendee has an impact of about 400 pounds of CO2 a day, but can reach up to 2,000 pounds when extensive travel is needed.
Travel isn’t just flights on airplanes, it accounts for the travel to and from the event - ubers, busses, trains, etc. Especially if you are hosting a multi-day event (which if people are flying internationally for, is most likely), you must take into account the impact of travel to and from your venue every day.
Carbon Emissions from Waste
This is the most obvious contributor to the carbon impact of the events industry, and the first to be addressed amongst event organizers.
A typical national conference attendee produces more than 1.89 kg of waste a day, most of which will end up in a landfill. Anyone who has attended an event can attest to the bulk amounts of food, printed marketing materials, agendas & brochures, SWAG items, show floors built from scratch, etc.
Event organizers are quick to address this problem - as addressing plastic waste is usually the first step in becoming climate conscious and can provide tangible changes to your event. Take Microsoft - Gina Broel, an event organizer for Microsoft, has established sustainability as a long-term initiative for the company. By eliminating plastic water bottles at their events they were able to both make a positive environmental impact and save $600,000 annually.
Although initiatives like eliminating plastic water bottles and switching to biodegradable utensils and napkins are great, it is often viewed as the low-hanging fruit of sustainability and organizations are sometimes scrutinized for claiming that these initiatives are not enough to combat the serious impact of events on climate change. After all, waste will only account for 10-30% of the overall carbon impact of the event. Organizations need to focus on a holistic approach to sustainability and consider all the aspects that are contributing to carbon emissions.
Carbon Emissions from Food Production
This area of carbon emissions is definitely gaining more attention as people start to understand the positive climate impact of a plant-based diet. Food production accounts for nearly 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, with nearly half of that coming from meat and dairy production. In the United States alone, 80% of agricultural land is used for raising animals and the crops that feed them, while half of all water consumption goes towards meat production.
There is over $1 trillion and 1.3 billion tonnes of food wasted globally per year. When it comes to catering, 45% of food waste comes in the form of preparation and another 21% comes from spoilage.
Catering to the Climate released a comprehensive report on the impact of meat-heavy diets in relation to events and large gatherings. Their Key Findings:
Replacing conventional menu choices with Earth-friendly options can reduce the carbon footprint of an event by tens of tons of greenhouse gases. For a 500-person event, the benefits of serving a low-impact menu are equivalent to:
Saving five acres of habitat from animal agriculture
Avoiding the emissions from 22,000 miles driven by a car or about 50 people flying round-trip from New York City to Chicago
Preventing 17 tons of manure pollution
Conserving nearly 100,000 gallons of water from irrigation and food processing
Addressing the issue of food waste in the events industry is crucial to a holistic approach of analyzing the impact in-person events have on the climate and on our planet’s resources. It has become increasingly hard for event organizers to address this as they are rooted in hospitality and aim to provide an opulent, valuable experience (which often means full buffet tables with plenty of high-caliber options).
How to Overcome the Carbon Impact of The Event Industry
There are several ways that we have outlined how to overcome the environmental impact of the events industry, and how individual organizations can easily and instantly begin to make changes.
Transition to Virtual Events
Transitioning to virtual events is the most tangible and effective way to reduce carbon emissions when organizing any event or large gathering. A recent energy report shows that transitioning events to a virtual platform will reduce related carbon emissions by 99%.
Virtual events allow for complete mitigation of both travel and food waste. It is indisputable and obvious the impact that going virtual can have on the environment. Check out this example of how much carbon emissions were eliminated by transitioning a three-day conference completely virtual:
Before Covid-19, many organizations were hesitant to go virtual, as they believed that there would not be as great of a response from attendees on their event experience. But after the forced transition to going virtual, many organizations have realized the added benefits of a virtual event experience, including: increased budgets for higher quality speakers & presenter, higher accessibility for attendees and Continuing Education opportunities.
Dennis Speet, acting CEO of the International Congress and Convention Association, speaks to switching their transition to a virtual platform, “Our congress is streamed entirely over the internet and we also offer the option to collect CME credits while participating from home. We have been offering online participation for years now and this is what will define the future success of our congress. When you can offer alternatives to long-haul flights and onsite participation, delegates will follow and start to use those.”
If you are concerned about the quality of the experience you will be providing for your virtual attendees, we have some ideas for how to engage and excite your audience:
Utilize interactive features
Utilize breakout sessions & create opportunities for human engagement & interaction
Consider sending out a meal stipend for attendees to support a local food restaurant
For more tips on this, read: 6 Pro Tips for Humanizing Your Virtual Event
Transitioning to Hybrid Events
If your organization isn’t quite ready to commit to a complete virtual experience, consider adding a virtual component to your event to make it more accessible and eco-friendly for international and distant attendees to partake in your event.
You will probably even experience an increase in attendance by offering a hybrid component to your event, as the increased accessibility will allow for more people to register and attend.
In fact, hybrid experiences will most likely become the norm and an expectation since the impacts of Covid-19. As MeetingMax said “there is plenty of opportunity for hybrid events to enhance live events. Prior to Covid-19 it was primarily events on the forefront of technology that included gamification, chat bots, chat rooms and virtual streaming. We foresee these being standard across all events going forward, not an afterthought or a nice to have.”
In 2019 and in just continental Europe alone, there were about 2,670 in-person events with over 735,000 exhibitors and 75.4 million attendees. Just imagine what the positive carbon impacts would be if those events were even slightly transitioned to a virtual experience. By starting to implement virtual components to your events, attendees, especially the ones from far away, will get used to utilizing the event tech platform to participate in the learning & networking opportunities that your event has to offer.
Corporate mindsets have also shifted over the last year to be much more open to Hybrid experiences. Try it out for your next event.
Carbon Offsetting & Carbon Neutral Events
Utilize a carbon calculator to evaluate the carbon emissions that your event is producing. There are ways to offset your carbon emissions, like vowing to plant enough trees to offset the impact of your event, investing in sustainable energy companies or implementing alternatives to single-use plastics. Your organization will probably have to partner with a company like Green Print to make sure that your monetary efforts towards carbon offsetting will be used appropriately.
Build a business case for carbon accountability. If you can genuinely claim that your organization, or event, is carbon neutral, people will want to support you. It is easy for customers and attendees to get behind and support a carbon-conscious brand. Partner with a group like BSI to build credibility behind claims of carbon neutrality.
Although this is a great alternative if your organization is not quite ready to make the transition to virtual events, it is often scrutinized for “greenwashing” - a term used to describe a brand or organization that is giving the impression that they are focused on sustainability, but not genuinely making steps towards a positive change.
Nancy Zavada, co-founder of the Green Meetings Industry Council and owner of US-based environmental consultancy MeetGreen, speaks to this, “a lot of organizers will give up individual water bottles, or paper, for example, and check the environment off their list. That’s the frustration. I understand they have a lot on their plate. Event planning is a difficult job, with many different factors and they don’t want to add one more. The environment is a complicated issue, it’s a big issue, and sometimes they’re scared to even dip their little toe in.”
Although a large concern for transitioning to a virtual experience concerns event organizers that their job will soon become automated by technology, there are valid contradictions to that argument. “If you’re an organizer, online meetings don’t put you out of work. You still have work to do, speakers to book, registration, just in a digital space. What can’t be right is hosting an international event without even thinking about the number of flights involved,” says Zavada.
Replacing Meat and Dairy Based Foods from Catering Menus
Last but certainly not least, you can make a surmountable impact by eliminating animal-based products from catering menus if you are still choosing to deliver in-person gatherings. As discussed earlier, huge amounts of CO2 emissions are associated with the agricultural sector and the rearing of livestock. By serving plant-based menus at events, organizers can dramatically reduce carbon emissions and provide sustainable food for attendees.
According to a recent report, Catering to the Climate, just replacing dairy-based cream with vegan cream cheese cuts the greenhouse gases generated by nearly a half. Also serving fajitas made with portobello mushrooms and peppers instead of beef reduces the amount of greenhouse gases generated by more than 75%, and will use 92% less land to produce.
Check out this Food Print Menu:
Transitioning to more plant-based menu options definitely poses new challenges to chefs and caterers, but it is far from impossible. Caterers and event organizers need to come together to support making a transition to plant-based options. Some actions to take to address the food waste problem include:
Rethinking inventory and purchasing practices
Informing the customer
Repurposing excess food
Jennifer Molidor, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, says, “Public demand for plant-based, low-carbon menus is growing quickly. Event small changes in purchasing, like replacing dairy with plant-based milks and cheeses, can bring substantial benefits to suppliers and their clients. When the event and catering industry serves plant-based menus, it’s an environmental and culinary success.”
Addressing the carbon impact of the events industry is an absolutely necessary measure that industry professionals need to take seriously if they want to adhere to growing public concern about climate change. Although the events industry is not often scrutinized as a large contributor to carbon emissions, the concern and impact it has on the environment is very, very real.
If you are looking for a full-service virtual events provider, consider checking out BeaconLive, a fully-scalable, high capability tech platform that partners with you to deliver seamless and professional events. Make an easy transition to going virtual, and do your part in the solution to climate change.