Why online events will only become more important post-pandemic

As the event industry collectively holds its breath until face to face meetings resume, there are signposts this month that the current large-scale shift to virtual experiences will not be going away any time soon.

Corporations target net zero: 2030

As the newly converted Climate Clock ticks down over New York’s Union Square, corporations are expected to make a series of new and expanded commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during Climate Week.

Kicking things off, PwC has announced an ambitious agenda to completely “decarbonise its operations, including its travel footprint, and neutralise its remaining climate impact by investing in carbon removal projects. It will also engage its suppliers to tackle their climate impact.”

The target: net zero emissions globally by 2030.

Given the blanket nature of the announcement, it is reasonable to expect that PwC’s net zero filter will be applied to not only business travel, but events and corporate sponsorships as well. And that organizers and suppliers will be increasingly accountable for the emissions impacts of event-related activities. And not just through offsets, but verifiable carbon reductions. Reductions that case study evidence shows can be delivered by hybrid and online events.

Civil society calls for a green and just recovery

In other news, a recent report by Oxfam is calling on governments to put climate justice at the heart of COVID-19 recovery. The report stresses that the richest 10% of the world’s population were responsible for 52% of cumulative carbon emissions between 1990 and 2015, depleting the global carbon budget by nearly a third over these 15 years. 

The bottom line of their recommendations: public funds to build back better post-pandemic are best spent on measures that grow the economy while also reducing climate impacts and inequality. This includes measures that reduce rather than increase the carbon intensity of activities, such as promoting energy efficient buildings, expanded public transit and improved health care and social services. Not included: continued tax-free status of aircraft fuel, unconditional aviation industry bailouts and tax breaks for company cars. 

Referenced in the report is a study that found that the richest 10 percent of households use almost half of all the energy linked to land transport and three quarters of all energy linked to aviation. This points to what Oxfam says is a critical opportunity to use carbon pricing and taxes to cut emissions among the most wealthy, while generating funding to support investment in actions that improve equity while also lowering emissions.

The move to hybrid and online events is aligned with the complementary goals of climate action and reduced inequality stressed by Oxfam, as virtual platforms not only improve access to education and networking opportunities, but do so without the added carbon intensity of travel.

Citizens show willingness to tax frequent, longer flights

Echoing Oxfam’s call for fairness when pursuing carbon reductions, the Climate Assembly UK’s recently released final report sets out a path for reaching the UK’s target of net zero emissions by 2050.

The outcomes of the assembly’s deliberations are important to consider as they provide insight into a wide-range of individual perspectives on how emissions can be practically reduced while keeping public support for climate action. Among 50 recommendations made by the 108-person assembly:

“Members would like to see a solution to air travel emissions that allows people to continue to fly. Assembly members felt that this would protect people’s freedom and happiness, as well as having benefits for business and the economy. However their support for continued flying had limits. Assembly members resoundingly rejected a future in which air passenger numbers would rise by as much as 65% between 2018 and 2050, labelling it “counterproductive”. Instead, assembly members sought to find an acceptable balance between achieving the net zero target, impacts on lifestyles, reliance on new technologies, and investment in alternatives.”

“80% of assembly members ‘strongly agreed’ or ‘agreed’ that taxes that increase as people fly more often and as they fly further should be part of how the UK gets to net zero. Assembly members saw these taxes as fairer than alternative policy options.”

Combined, Oxfam’s research and the UK Climate Assembly report point to virtual events as a way to prepare for policy changes that could tax frequent and long flights, thereby controlling costs into the future. Add to that the increasing commitments corporations are making to reach net zero by 2030 and there are a two reasons why online event formats are expected to remain front and centre post-pandemic.

Hang on a moment….

What about the digital footprint of online meetings, you ask. Isn’t there an equal carbon cost to the transition from in-person to online?

Indeed, there are carbon impacts associated with streaming content, both live and recorded. However, evidence suggests the trade-offs associated with events may still leave online and hybrid formats “in-the-green” compared to in person-only experiences that require air travel. 

As an example, the International Energy Agency estimates 1,000 people streaming eight hours of event content emits 656 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2eq) emissions. If all 1,000 event participants opt to stream on a laptop using more efficient standard definition (SD) settings on a WiFi network the impact drops to just over 200 kilograms CO2eq. By comparison, one trans-Atlantic flight emits 655 kg of CO2e. 

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