Sustainable Events: Time to Stop Walking Down the Up Escalator

Th event industry needs to dig in deep and act fast in order to respond to the climate crisis.

Scrolling through the wave of news about how the climate crisis is getting worse, I can’t help but think the practice of sustainable events feels a lot like trying to run down an up escalator.

Especially as live, in-person events start to tentatively re-open. Positive feelings rise as we look forward to connecting again! Then there’s a splash of cold water as the obligation to be environmentally responsible also kicks in. We respond by doing what is familiar, controllable and safe: hold the bottled water, put the recycling bins out, compost the food.

In the end, sustainability gymnastics by event professionals sees 90% effort spent on solutions that, at best, might reduce carbon impact by 10% for a given conference event. So emissions continue, and the climate crisis marches on, and our efforts to manage our own footprint seem to hardly make a dent.

It’s getting a bit tiresome.

And we need help.

The pandemic has dramatically highlighted how the options for event professionals to meaningfully reduce emissions at international events are sorely limited. Meet online and see emissions fall by as much as 98%. Go hybrid and you may also dramatically reduce impact, although results vary. Go back to in-person and, well…good luck reducing emissions in a major way.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We need to be able to connect in-person, and do so in low-carbon ways. And we can’t do it by chipping away at the margins on our own, either within individual events, or as an industry unconnected to others. We need policy and incentives to help decarbonize the infrastructure we rely on in bigger ways than we can achieve on our own and at a faster pace that responds to how urgent the crisis is (and it is urgent).

So as the latest IPCC report reverberates the escalating climate emergency, let’s not delay by assuming old thinking can solve persistent problems.

Let’s instead turn our heads to what it would take to get off the up escalator of event emissions, and build better infrastructure that allows us to make bigger net gains in reducing emissions. Let’s identify the “hard stuff” we need help fixing, that would truly decarbonize in-person events and actually start asking for help in a loud way. Either by creating our own calls to action, or lending our voice to the many campaigns by others asking for the same things.

Things like plans, policies and incentives that support:

  • Clean, renewable electricity for our destinations
  • Retrofit programs for venues and hotels to be more efficient.
  • Fossil fuel-free mobile generation solutions.
  • Viable and affordable rail transport.
  • Cleaner and more efficient aviation.
  • Zero-emission vehicles and expanded infrastructure to support their use.
  • Companies that prioritize circular design solutions.

(And while we’re at it, can we get some tax breaks for those making use of digital conference technology in the meantime, please?)

Event professionals are and do need to continue to act to reduce event footprints where they are able, and progress has been made. But we can only go so far with the infrastructure at our disposal and acting on our own. It’s time to identify what we need to be part of the solution to climate change, and not more of the problem. And take deep, fast steps to achieve it.

Looking for more? Want to take action?

  • Read about the many solutions to reduce emissions, support carbon sinks and help society meet the challenge of climate change at Project Drawdown
  • Join the SME Climate Hub of small and medium-size businesses taking action to curb carbon emissions.

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