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Is the Business Event Sector Serious about “Net Zero”?

Is the event sector failing to read the room when it comes to taking action on climate change?

I recently took a look at the sustainable menu strategy for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 26, currently taking place in Glasgow, Scotland.

Beyond undertaking a carbon analysis of food in order to communicate the carbon impact of different dishes–a major accomplishment unto itself–the site reports:

  • At least 80% Scottish sourced, local and in season produce.
  • At least 95% UK sourced produce.
  • At least 40% of dishes are fully plant-based.
  • 60% of retail dishes are plant-based AND vegetarian

What do you think? How does it strike you?

Having spent many years looking at sustainable sourcing for catering menus, I admit it strikes me as relatively progressive. A step in the right direction. Certainly well beyond what a typical convention offers for retail food options, where there are often so many degrees of separation between the kitchen, produce distributors and growers that it’s hard to know where the food even originated, never mind what its actual carbon footprint is, or if it was grown and harvested in a fair and just manner.

But this is not your typical convention. It’s an event where demand for climate-conscious catering is clearly higher. As are expectations around reducing waste, improving accessibility and eliminating high-carbon forms of transport.

The social commentary unfolding at COP 26 (see links above) should worry conference organizers and those who supply the sector. It is a clear and present warning that in spite of good efforts to make progress in event sustainability, participants are critical of the sector’s ability to provide experiences that embody the climate-conscious values of those attending and observing.

If you work within the business event and association sector it is tempting to shrug it off. Point to it as a fringe case: “not our audience”.

But is that true?

Recent polling by the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations suggests that a sizable majority of the general public in four countries (the UK, China, Brazil and Sweden) believe we should eat less meat and minimize air travel: attitudes and choices that have clear ramifications for business event organizers.

And even if critics of event logistics at COP 26 are not “our” participants they are members, customers and employees of organizations that host and sponsor events. And these organizations are being called on to decarbonize supply chains, shift away from high-carbon habits like frequent flying and address injustices inherent in the climate crisis.

There are signs the business event sector may be paying attention. The Joint Meetings Industry Council has created a pledge for net zero carbon events, although pathways to action are not yet clear. Time will tell if such efforts move beyond previous approaches that have, in hindsight, seemed fragmented and low in ambition.

Given the tone toward event logistics that is emerging at COP 26, and the opportunity to shape a wider net zero event campaign, participants in the sector must be prepared to ask critical questions about where we go from here to become a credible ally for climate action in how we plan business events:

Is the event sector open to transformative solutions to eliminate emissions or merely propping-up the status quo? COVID-19 advanced event technology as a viable solution for many types of business event outcomes. Yet as borders re-open and travel increases it is tempting to fall back on pre-pandemic preferences for in-person events. Will hybrid and online technology be welcome as a permanent zero-emissions solution within the sector itself? Or will a primary tool in the low-carbon toolbox be relegated to the sidelines of an effort designed for in-person only events?

Do actions suggest an understanding of material impacts, or just provide the appearance of doing something while putting off harder steps to eliminate major emissions sources? Recycling, doing away with bottled water and carbon offsetting have been a tacit litmus test for “sustainable events” for quite some time. Are we prepared to move beyond the comfortable, low-hanging fruit to confront harder problems like circular design of our highly disposable environments in a mainstream way? And invest in enabling more difficult low-carbon solutions for transportation that allow us to be together face-to-face without paying to compensate for high-carbon trips?

Will the event sector act on behalf of future generations to shift the behavior of current generations? Many of us have attended planning meetings and watched a sustainable event idea die on the table because “sponsors won’t be happy” or “attendees won’t buy in”. Will net zero pathways rise with ambition to disrupt what sponsors and participants are used to? Will we suppress the inclination to focus on the downsides of action that can hinder innovation? And by doing so throw open the doors to new sponsors and attendees who are waiting in the wings for us to include them?

Which brings me to a final question: will net zero actions by the business event sector enable equity and justice? This question may seem misplaced to some who view “net zero” as an exercise that strictly promotes direct emission reductions from concrete things like food, venues and hotel rooms (and offsetting whatever is left over). Or to someone who thinks of equity in events as a target related to diverse hiring. However, any credible net zero pathway for business events must start from a position that critically inventories the very long climate shadow the event sector casts. A climate shadow that can fuel high-carbon behaviors–like frequent travel–by a small number of high-income individuals in a very unfair way that places poor and marginalized communities and future generations at a disadvantage.

As the business event sector looks to shape a path for itself as a climate action ally, let’s be clear-eyed: the emissions gap is wide, and the temptations to water down ambition will be strong. Now is not the time to waver on half-measures. The world is watching, and we don’t have time.

Acknowledgement: Questions posed in this post are informed by the Discourses of Climate Delay.

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