The road to net zero carbon events will not be an easy one. And the journey might look down-right impossible from the perspective of a business event organiser planning a return to in-person events in 2022.
Yet every journey becomes possible after you see how it might be done. So as a thought experiment, let’s leap forward to glance back from the vantage point of 2030: the year your business conference successfully achieved a target to reduce emissions by 50%, without relying on offsets. What did it take to get there? And what lessons can you learn to help today? Let’s IMAGINE…
Net Zero: A Major Event Milestone
It’s 2030 and our company is thrilled to announce that we’ve reached a critical step in our journey toward net zero emissions by 2050. Today, we can report that the carbon footprint of our 2029 Annual Convention is 49% lower than what it was in 2019.
Ten years ago, when we pledged to reduce emissions from our Annual Convention by half within the decade, we were not certain we would be successful.
In 2019 our company’s Annual Global Convention caused a staggering 9,927 metric tons of emissions. Equal to the impact of burning 22,983 barrels of oil. To put that in perspective, the carbon impact of an individual participant at our 2019 conference caused more carbon pollution over five days than someone living in India emits during a whole year.
When our net zero event journey began in 2019, offsets were our strategy of choice. And we proudly gave $250,000 to support a certified forest restoration project. Our partners estimate the trees planted in 2019 have now absorbed 50% of the emissions caused by the event held ten years ago.
Looking back, it’s easy to see our good intentions then were clearly inadequate to address the urgency of climate change. We needed to be more thoughtful, disruptive and ambitious if we were to eliminate at least 50% of our event emissions by 2030 without relying completely on offsets.
Now, thanks to participant feedback, the diligent efforts of planners and suppliers, and with the full support of our event partners, we’ve done just that.
The challenge has not been easy. We have agonized over event design decisions during these ten years, and the impact they have on you: our participants. While climate action is our sincere intention, at the heart of our work is how our organisation and the annual Annual Convention enables important opportunities for you to learn and connect. This will continue to be a compass in our work as we now move into the second phase of our commitment: to reach net zero by 2050.
But for now, a look back. What did it take to get here? And what lessons have we learned?
As is evidenced by the pathway projected below, our convention’s journey to net zero has been anything but straight. There have been many ups and downs along the way.
2019: Event Carbon Footprint Baseline: Event managers began by measuring the carbon footprint of the Annual Convention in 2019, which hosted 5,000 in-person participants over five days. Analysis revealed total event emissions, the sources of those emissions and what it would cost to offset event impacts. Budgets were unable to support a fully carbon neutral event, but sponsorship did enable mitigation of 50% of 2019 event emissions by 2030.
2020-2021: The Digital Years: During the COVID-19 lock-down the Annual Convention was held online. Approximately 6,500 people took part in each of the 2020 and 2021 events, which featured 20 hours of programming. Total emissions for these events were a fraction of our in-person conference, even after factoring in additional pre-recorded content that was professionally produced in-studio for the 2021 event.
2022: Return to In-Person: Travel uncertainty reduced participation to 3,400 onsite as 40% of long-distance travelers opted to stay home and watch the event live-stream. Onsite impacts were reduced in the following ways:
- 40% vegan and vegetarian meals
- Print programs, handouts and polystyrene signs eliminated
- PVC banners reduced by 25%
- Sustainability guidelines developed for onsite exhibitors
- Landfill reduced by 10%
2023: Partial Recovery: In 2023, onsite attendance rebounded to 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Efforts to reduce onsite impacts were stepped up in the following ways:
- Vegan and vegetarian meals increased to 60% of total
- Beef meals eliminated
- Disposable food service ware use was reduced by 25%, causing landfill to drop by 20%
- Air freight and long-distance ground shipments were eliminated in favor of local purchasing and rentals
2024: Complete Recovery: Continued improvements to digital event offerings grow the online audience to 2,000 and onsite participation returned to pre-pandemic levels. Further eco-efficiencies were introduced to the event:
- Vegan and vegetarian meals increased to 90% of total
- Disposable service ware reduced by 80%
- Composting program introduced, reducing landfill by 60%
- PVC banners eliminated
2025: A New Destination: Onsite registration remains constant, while online registration increases to 2,500. Three new quarterly virtual summits are added. Efforts to select sustainable destinations and venues bear fruit:
- Long- haul flight distance drops 1,000 km on average
- 500 short-haul flights eliminated as attendees take trains to the event
- Clean energy grids reduced the carbon impact of hotels and venues
- Airport transfers by car dropped by 75% due to transit access
- Coaches eliminated through walkable venues
- All meals plant-based
- 80% waste recovery rate achieved
2026: Hybrid and the “New Normal”: Having enhanced digital content and transitioned into working with a new, cleaner destination, the Annual Convention settles into a new normal as a hybrid event. Organizers note a 10% decline in attendees coming long distances as some participants who previously traveled to the event opt for digital engagement.
2027: Hybrid Uncertainty?: There are no notable changes in sustainable event practices in 2027, although there is a further 5% shift to online engagement among long-distance travelers as digital registrations eclipse onsite for the first time. This participant migration, coupled with the increased cost and complexity of hosting a hybrid event and a plateauing of emissions reductions, leads organizers to consult with stakeholders about shifting event formats yet again.
2028: Cluster Conferences: The Annual Convention is adapted into a multi-hub cluster conference as a pilot project for one year. The shift sees three smaller, regional events held on three continents during the same week. The event is curtailed to four days. Programs have a regional focus, although participants are connected for 90 minutes of live, global content across these hubs each day. Hubs are unable to achieve the onsite sustainability performance of the destination used from 2025-2027, so there is some slippage in onsite venue best practices. This is offset by reduced need for accommodation.
2029: Clusters + Live Stream: The regional format is continued, following positive feedback from participants in 2028. The 90 minutes of globally connected content shared each day is offered via a live stream so that those unable to travel can participate in a portion of the agenda.
While every event has its own unique challenges and pathway to net zero, there are lessons that we have learned during the 10 year journey to decarbonize our conference that may be helpful for others.
Lesson One: In order to drive down total event emissions, virtual event technology must enable a net reduction in attendee transportation footprint. Hybrid event options that only add new participants may reduce per participant emissions overall, but will inevitably cause total emissions to rise.
Lesson Two: Destination, venue and hotel selection can drive emissions reductions provided the carbon intensity of grid electricity, room nights and/or venue space drops a notable amount. In our case, the carbon intensity of accommodations and venues dropped by 52% and 69% respectively, registering a meaningful reduction. This provides evidence of the important role clean destination infrastructure plays in drawing down onsite impacts.
Lesson Three: Plant-based meals followed destination selection as the second most important choice factor to reduce onsite emissions at our event. Even though 23% more meals were served at our event in 2029 than 2019, food and beverage emissions have dropped by 38% compared to the baseline. Our transition was gradual and was met with little resistance from attendees.
Lesson Four: The shift to more sustainable production materials did not have a significant impact on our event’s carbon impact due to the fact there are minimal exhibits. Events that feature more exhibits would be expected to see greater impacts and potential for carbon savings.
Lesson Five: Even with growing attendance, digital events generated fewer impacts than in-person events during the live event. Pre-recorded studio content and participant shipments add carbon impacts, with only the former applying to our event. Storage and dissemination of event-generated content for on-demand viewing can cause additional and ongoing impacts that should be measured. While some companies may choose to allocate these emissions to event operations by adding impacts anticipated post-event, in the case of our company, they are measured as part of our company’s actual IT operations footprint on an annual basis, so are reported, but separately from events.
Lesson Six: The assumption a single-site hybrid model for our conference would deliver adequate emissions reductions was wrong, and actually led to increased cost and more complicated planning. The regional cluster conference model was the most effective way to reduce emissions while also enabling relationship-building through face to face connection. However, this format has hampered global connections and comes with its own logistical complications, particularly as an online hub is added.
Lesson Seven: While quality carbon offsets may support important nature-based solutions, the time-scale of these mitigations is much longer than the lifecycle of an event, sometimes requiring decades to be fully effective in absorbing emissions. These slower pathways enable more emissions to accumulate in the atmosphere, causing more harm, if they are used as a way to delay harder choices to reduce. For this reason our company does not include offsets in our net zero targets, but reports them as part of our philanthropic activities.
Lesson Eight: An important thread in our story is yet to be told: how our event itself has generated a legacy of net zero pathways for participants. For example, in 2025 our event hackathon seeded a solution to help customers design waste out of their operations. And a relationship sparked at our 2023 event established a social enterprise that today is building residential solar microgrids in Central America. While these are not our emissions savings to claim, they are a testament to the power of our event to create innovation that drives climate action.
The next leg of the journey
As we begin a new decade we stand at a cross-roads: where to from here? We continue to monitor how quickly aviation is decarbonizing as that will enable us to more freely connect in person in future. Until then, do we continue with regional clusters? Do we reconvene globally? Do we alternate our formats, hosting a fully digital event one year, a regional cluster the next, followed by a global reunion every three years?
During this year’s event each region is hosting a town hall where your input into the future of the Annual Convention will be requested. The sessions will share the carbon impact information we have covered here, and feedback from our annual attendee surveys.
We need input on pressing questions that affect you:
- Are you getting the results you want out of the convention?
- How effective are different formats in meeting the needs you have for knowledge and networking?
- Do you see opportunities to further reduce emissions toward net zero by 2050 that don’t compromise–and ideally add to–the results you seek?
Your feedback will inform practical decisions about future events. All options that enable us to help you, while also helping the planet, are on the table. This is a critical opportunity to create the future you want. Join us in charting a path forward together.
Are you currently imagining your path to net zero? Or do you need help doing so? Does this thought experiment create questions you’d like to explore? Please reach out!
Acknowledgements: Gratitude to Paul Cook, Founder and Director of the Hybrid Event Centre and William Thomson MD Gallus Events and Founder of Virtual Event Campus for their feedback on this imagining.
Notes: Data is based on a hypothetical scenario of impacts associated with an international business conference event with minimal exhibits. It is not a case study of a specific event.