Using Data to Decide What Makes Your Event Truly “Sustainable”

When it comes to cutting climate-busting carbon emissions at events, what is the most important step to take?

I get this question often. When responding, I try to rely on my experience of cause and effect: “If I do this (insert event sustainability best practice here), how does the event’s carbon footprint actually change?”

Letting data drive decisions has helped to teach me that the top choices to reduce emissions impacts are not always what I might first think.

I recently shared a post about a national association convention attempting to estimate the carbon emissions implications of meeting online, in-person or through a hybrid model. The example showed how the association could reduce meeting impacts by 60%, 75% or 98% depending on the format selected.

Imagine that this association treats their online event as a temporary tactic, and returns to in-person meetings once it is safe to do so. Having foregone the benefits of hybrid and online models (which, from a carbon perspective, are massive and should not be ignored), what choices remain? And how effective is each at reducing carbon emissions at an onsite, in-person event?

If we start by looking at the impact of different best practice choices on total emissions for this scenario, including travel, the reduction potential of each is as follows:

Impact of Best Practice Choices on Total Event Carbon Footprint (With Travel)

As you can see, once the choice to gather in person is made, the decision to “meet close” and reduce airlift is key.

Airplane_silhouette_SIn this scenario, choosing a city that eliminates long-haul air travel reduced emissions by 29%. The emissions reduction benefit of this action is equal to planting 2,111 trees.

If we zoom in our focus to look only at onsite factors for this case study, and remove the variables of event format and travel to and from, the impact of different best practice choices line up as follows:

Impact of Best Practice Choices on Onsite Event Carbon Emissions (Travel Excluded)

Here the data shows the top practice to reduce emissions is one not often mentioned in best practice guides: choosing a location that uses clean energy. This might include opting for a venue or hotels that have onsite solar power. Or, perhaps easier, choosing a city that operates on a low-carbon electricity grid.  In this specific example organizers opted to host the event in a city that uses primarily hydroelectric power, instead of a mix of fossil fuels supported by a small amount of renewable energy, reducing onsite emissions by 63%.

wind-energy-2029621_1280Resource: Looking for a green power destination? Check out CDP’s list of renewable energy cities.

The second top choice is opting for a venue and hotels with strong energy efficiency programs in place. The potential emissions savings here may be higher or lower than the 17% indicated, depending on how much more efficient the building is compared to alternatives. This should be verified though energy use and savings data provided by the building operator. The presence of a green building certification, such as LEED or Green Key, may imply efficient practices, but a certification is not a blanket guarantee of efficiency. 

The remaining choices– 80% plant-rich menu, zero waste programs and eliminating ground shuttles–each represent potential onsite emissions reductions of less than 5% in this case study. While the potential of these steps to contribute to Climate Action is lower, this should not be used as an excuse to not act as they have good potential to address other UN Sustainable Development Goals, including Health and Well Being and Responsible Consumption and Production. And cumulatively, every step adds up.

This analysis is an isolated case study. Scenarios for other events may be different. What it serves to highlight is the importance of:

  • Having a clear sustainability intention. In this analysis I have assumed the goal is Climate Action and the indicator of success is reduced carbon emissions. This type of analysis could be extended to other intentions such as reducing solid waste. The point is: the practices adopted should support the intention, and help demonstrate progress against the overall goal.
  • Considering data when making decisions about sustainability best practices. Using carbon (or waste or water) analytics to inform best practices may highlight sustainability blind spots that are not obvious. Or suggest where time could be better spent generating greater outcomes. So for many, this means an important first step is measurement, then action through best practices that are informed by that measurement.
  • Integrating sustainability data into planning decisions as early as possible. As you can see by our example, delaying consideration of sustainability until after the event model, location and venue are selected limits the range of choices that are possible. So by using data as early as possible we gain more insight into actions that have the greatest potential to achieve sustainability goals.

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