The Emissions Impact of Online, Hybrid and In-Person Meetings

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many event professionals to adapt their meetings to online formats. The shift presents a critical opportunity to learn about the carbon emissions impact of different types of meeting formats. Equipped with this knowledge early in the decision-making process, planners can evaluate which models–online, hybrid or in-person–best achieve outcomes at least carbon impact.

Let’s take a hypothetical example: a national-scale association meeting in North America. Prior to 2020, the association hosted an annual three-day convention for approximately 1,000 members. For the first time this year the convention will be hosted online. Based on the success of the event in 2020 the association may resume exclusively in-person gatherings once it is safe to do so, or consider a more permanent shift to a hybrid in-person/online event, or fully online event.

Five possible event scenarios have been identified. They include:

  1. Single Event Site: 1,000 members travel across the country to one host city for a traditional three-day convention. No virtual option is provided.
  2. Hub and Spoke: The single event site broadcasts out to an additional 1,000 participants who may enjoy the event from home, or in a local venue with others.
  3. Regional Clusters: There is no central event location. State or provincial chapters gather in a nearby city and are connected to other chapters online. There is some air travel associated with this scenario.
  4. Local Clusters: As with Regional Clusters, there is no primary event site. Members gather together at a local venue in multiple cities and are connected to each other online. There is no air travel in this scenario.
  5. Remote-Only: All participants, including the moderator, speakers and sponsors, join from home.

The potential emissions impact of each format can be estimated using background data from the 2019 and 2020 events. The calculations account for emissions impacts from:

  • Participant travel to/from the event
  • Streaming by remote viewers
  • Accommodation energy
  • Venue energy
  • Venue and catering waste
  • Meals at the venue
  • Onsite shuttles
  • Event freight (no exhibits)
  • Consumables, such as paper

Total emissions estimated for the case study scenarios are illustrated below. Remote formats project a 98% reduction in emissions compared to the highest impact Hub and Spoke model. Local and Regional Cluster formats project 75% and 60% emissions savings, respectively.

How Does Meeting Format Impact Total Event Emissions_

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To put the data in more relatable terms: the difference in total emissions impact between the highest and lowest scenarios for this example is equal to the climate pollution resulting from consuming 1009 barrels of oil.

If we look at per participant impacts the picture changes slightly. The relative reductions in impact are similar when you compare the formats, with one significant exception: the highest impact scenario changes to Single Site.

How Does Meeting Format Impact Per Participant Event Emissions_

This is because onsite impacts are assumed to be constant between the Single Site and Hub and Spoke models. And the Hub and Spoke model has an added emissions burden to store and transmit online content to remote audiences. However, because more people are able to participate with added streaming (twice as many, in this scenario), the impact per person using a Hub and Spoke model is reduced.

OilTo put per participant data in relatable terms: the climate pollution caused by one participant in the lowest impact scenario is equal to burning half a gallon of gasoline. Conversely, each person at the high impact meeting would burn the equivalent of 50 gallons of gasoline.

A myriad of factors need to be carefully considered when deciding the format of a meeting. Organizers must choose the model that best achieves desired outcomes. By looking at the potential emissions impacts of different event models at the earliest stages, organizers can be better informed of the climate impacts inherent in this choice, and opt for least polluting alternatives.

Sources for case study: International Energy Agency, UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, European Environment Agency, USEPA eGrid, Hotel Footprinting Tool, Our World in Data

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