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What are your post-pandemic sustainable event priorities?

What are the top sustainability issues we must focus on as live, in-person events return?

As an event sustainability consultant, I have been asked this question a lot lately. And as I ponder my response, I feel very much like Debbie Downer at Disneyland.

Many of us cannot deny the hopeful, happy feeling we have as we look ahead to the return of live, in-person events. Underlying this emotion is the uncomfortable reality that a return to events-as-usual will also bring a rebound in waste and climate impacts that have temporarily subsided during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Substantiating this concern, analysts have shared that:

  • To meet the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement carbon dioxide emissions must drop 7.6 per cent per year from 2020 to 2030, or 2.7 per cent per year for the 2°C goal (UNFCCC, 2019).
  • The COVID-19 crisis has triggered a six per cent drop in global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions across 2020, the largest decline since the Second World War (EIA, 2021).
  • Global carbon dioxide emissions have rebounded strongly, and were two per cent higher in December 2020 than in the same month one year earlier (EIA, 2021).

What does this mean? In short: while it was hoped 2019 may mark a peak in global emissions as governments responded to public concern about the climate emergency, latest data suggests that, in spite of a pandemic lockdown, we may not be moving in that direction.

As we emerge from the pandemic there is some reason to hope. Governments are including emissions reduction incentives in recovery packages. And businesses are responding to the integrated issues of climate risk and inequality by making an increasing number of zero or net-zero emissions commitments.

This wider context will no doubt impact how events are approached in the future. To remain resilient in an increasingly climate-conscious world, event professionals can prepare by ensuring event operations reduce emissions to the greatest extent possible. (Because there wasn’t enough to plan for while while trying to keep participants safe, right?)

So, how to do this?

The first step should be clear: Measure. By measuring event carbon impacts organizers are able to learn their primary sources of emissions. This, in turn, enables insight into what steps present the greatest opportunities for reduction.

There are multiple free calculators that exist online to help estimate carbon emissions for events and event businesses. These are sufficient for approximate measures that cover basic operations. If more specific measurement is needed for the purpose of corporate reporting or on-going management of impacts, event organizers may want to consider hiring a carbon accounting consultant.

The second step is acting to reduce emissions based on measurement (a topic covered in more detail in this post).

To be clear: the most effective way to reduce emissions is to shift events to virtual-first formats wherever possible (discussed in more detail here).

For those opting to pursue live, in-person events, measurement typically shows that impacts occur in three primary areas:

  • Transportation: travel to and from the event, onsite shuttles, freight.
  • Infrastructure: venues, hotels, technology.
  • Supply Chain: consumables such as food, décor, graphics and other supplies.

Emissions reduction potential tends to be highest where:

  • Airlift is reduced
  • Destinations and venues with clean energy are used
  • Efficient buildings and technology are chosen
  • Plant-based diets are served
  • Waste is eliminated

So, knowing that we are moving into the rebound–from an events, economic and emissions perspective–what will your sustainable event priorities be?

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