Carbon Legacy Technology

It’s time to move away from funding event carbon offsets to planning for a low-carbon future

There's never been a better time for event organizers to start investing in carbon reductions, not offsets.

Several years ago, I wrote a post that is different than the one I am sharing today. I thought about deleting the old post, but I’ve decided not to. It is a good reminder to me that I need to keep learning, and re-evaluating.

(In my defense, it is a different world than it was in 2013 when I wrote it, a whole pandemic and Paris Agreement later! But still, I feel I need to call-out my change in thinking.)

In the post I hypothesized about the costs and benefits of adding a carbon offset to event registration as a way for events to support forest restoration and renewable energy. In short: not an unreasonable idea, if high quality projects that address the shortcomings of offsets I had outlined in a post a few months earlier are selected.

But I now feel differently, and know better. And think events can do better, too.

Our window to reduce carbon emissions is rapidly closing and offsets are increasingly criticized as a tactic that enables climate delay, rather than meaningful climate action (check out these excellent posts by Dr. Jonathan Foley and Flying Less). And while offsets may be an acceptable mitigation measure for activities that are difficult to currently decarbonize, this is not the case with events. Virtual event solutions exist, and participants are more willing than ever to use them.

Yet, as the excitement to re-open events picks up steam, event organizers may feel pressure to set aside virtual event options explored during the pandemic, and look to offsets as a way to “neutralize” the carbon impacts associated with getting back to live, in-person events.

The intention to leave a legacy through offsets is admirable. However, if reducing carbon emissions is the ultimate goal, it could be better achieved by shifting offset budgets to continued research and development of effective virtual event technology solutions that actually work for organizers and participants. Especially given case study data suggests virtual events generate a fraction of the emissions that in-person events do.

As an example, let’s imagine an organizer budgets to purchase a carbon offset for a 5,000 person conference. It’s not unreasonable to expect an international event of this type could generate three metric tons of emissions per person (as in this case study). If a quality offset sells for $11 per metric ton, as the Gold Standard Climate+ Portfolio of Projects does, the offset could cost the event approximately $165,000.

An amount that could go a long way in advancing virtual ways to connect.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting quality offset projects don’t do good in the world. And there are very good reasons why an in-person event may be necessary. But where there are valid reasons to gather face-to-face, it is important to stand behind that decision, and avoid using an offset as a climate apology for doing so.

Instead, let’s imagine what would happen if rather than buying a carbon offset we used a similar pricing model to put a dollar value on an appropriate amount to invest in virtual events. Which can then be targeted at improving technology solutions to directly reduce emissions from event activities. That way, rather than settling for “net-zero” events that neutralize impacts with offsets, we move closer to designing permanent low-carbon business solutions that drive successful events while also reducing emissions.

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