Carbon Measurement Myths

Meeting Mythbusters: The Cost of #Carbon Accountability

A recent column claiming tech conferences are destroying the world is the inspiration for today’s Meeting Mythbusters.

While many a commenter has weighed in on everything from the science of climate change to the value of face to face meetings, I’m going to focus instead on a few things that were not included: some expanded information about the carbon impact of events and some perspective on the solution proposed.

First, to summarize the author’s main point, along with some additional information:

Flying to conferences emits a significant amount of carbon. True! Events have many impacts, including carbon emissions. If you look at the carbon profile of a technology conference, attendee air travel to and from the destination can comprise over 90% of emissions. So while volunteer CSR programs for attendees and “green” efforts like eliminating bottled water are definitely positive steps, they do not really impact this 90%.

Just how much carbon is produced from a conference varies greatly. The article cites three tons per person for a flight. The case study linked above estimates just under 1 ton per person. In a recent corporate report analyzing 32 conferences MeetGreen estimates the carbon footprint of a typical conference attendee is approximately 319 pounds per person per day. This includes not only air, but ground transport, waste, onsite power generation, hotel rooms and venue energy. It also assumes air travel primarily within continent, so an international, global event would be expected to be higher. So while possible, three tons is likely a high-end measure for a three-day, national conference and more likely to apply to a conference of trans-oceanic scale. The lesson: each conference is very different, and could be anywhere from 0.5-3 tons per person. So event planners should definitely review registration records and calculate your own event footprint before relying on anyone else’s carbon figures and costs.

Which leads to the author’s proposition of what to do when you choose to invest in hosting or attending an event in person: Add a carbon offset fee to conference registration.

Hang on, you say. Didn’t you write earlier about how offsetting events is a bit dodgy? Well you’re right, I did. And I would never recommend it as a cornerstone strategy for sustainable events, especially in the absence of meaningful emissions reductions. And I would further suggest that events requiring travel need to stand on their own merits as essential activities, irrespective of offsetting.

But bear with me a moment as I tease out an idea…

While the demographics of events mentioned in the article may suggest affluence, attendees at many conventions are not necessarily wealthy. Fortunately, when it comes to offsetting we’re not actually talking about $100 here, as mentioned in the article. Or $50. Or even $25. The reality is the typical cost to offset an entire conference attendee’s footprint including air travel is less than $20. And depending on your convention demographics, event duration and quality of offset, may be under $10 per attendee.

That’s the price of a fancy cup of coffee each day you’re at the conference.

Which leads me to the question why aren’t we baking in offsets to registration, either as a choice, or mandatory cost? In combination with meaningful reductions, of course. Mandatory offsets paid through registration are ideal, as for some event attendees itemized offsets may not be expensable as an option, but might be covered if included in registration fees.

So rather than worrying about adding costs equivalent to a few cups of coffee to a registration fee let’s think seriously about one way the meetings industry could become an advocate for better carbon accountability and lower-carbon energy solutions by integrating support of credible offsets into registration.

If we did, the meetings industry could collectively contribute US$2 billion to investments in cleaner, renewable energy solutions.

Isn’t it time we become part of the solution, rather than more of the problem?

For more:

Offset value based on $10 per conference attendee, for 204 million event registrants in the USA in 2009,  Convention Industry Council report, February 2011.

Appreciation to Nancy Bsales at TerraPass for her help with this post! TerraPass provides carbon offsets solutions for conferences and events, working with event hosts to educate and offset attendees’ impacts on the environment.


  1. Great points, Shawna! Listening to the hue and cry over carbon offsets, you’d think they were orders of magnitude more expensive. They probably should be. But given the difference events can make with even the minimal fees that offsetters currently charge, it really is the least the industry can do if it claims to be serious about climate change.

  2. And considering the White House recently increased their estimates on the cost of climate change to the public from $26 to $43 per ton, your point about the cost for offsetting being minimal is well taken, MItchell!

  3. Reblogged this on Events Insider and commented:
    Interesting that the typical cost to offset an entire conference attendee’s footprint, including air travel, is less than $20. And depending on your convention demographics, event duration and quality of offset, may be under $10 per attendee. Would delegates be prepared to pay an additional fee to offset their carbon footprint?

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