We are in a climate emergency.
No region on earth remains unaffected by climate change. Carbon dioxide (CO2), which makes up most of the earth’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is the primary driver that affects climate change. These emissions are the main effect of human activities. The only way to avert a climate catastrophe is with human intervention.
With recent event campaigns like Global Citizen Live and the current 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) at Glasgow, it’s become essential to have conversations about the climate crisis. We need to start thinking and talking about what we can do to take urgent action to tackle climate change and its impact like:
- Does your organisation’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative tackle climate issues?
- As event practitioners, do you think about what you can do to cut carbon emissions?
In-person events contribute more to carbon emissions.
In-person events usually require large amounts of energy that contribute to carbon emissions. Energy consumption is higher, especially when you organise events that require attendees to travel long distances, e.g. regional and international events.
In 2019, GHG emissions from transportation alone made up about 29% of total GHG emissions in the United States, making it the most significant contributor of GHG emissions. Due to COVID-19 in 2020, carbon emissions decreased because more people used virtual solutions to fulfil their work and personal needs.
Besides carbon emissions from extensive amounts of travel to event locations, we need to also look at energy usage during the event. According to The Company of Biologists, three areas contribute most to an event’s footprint – travel, food, and materials.
The Company of Biologists said it best:
“The carbon footprint of an event depends heavily on the geographical scale of its participants. From which countries/cities the participants start their journey to how many different transportation mediums they use until they reach their destination, these all add up to the CO2 emissions of the event. And let’s not forget the trip back.”
Meals and Food Waste
When you serve meals at your events, sourcing ingredients for your food and drinks contribute to your carbon footprint, especially if you didn’t buy the ingredients locally.
There’s also the inevitable food waste—the average event wastes between 15% to 20% of the food it produces.
Materials and Waste
With offline events, physical event collateral is a massive contributor to your carbon footprint. Event collateral such as:
- banners, and
- other required communications that are usually distributed frequently—before and during events.
A portion of the promotional material also gets discarded by attendees, contributing to the event’s waste. How many times have you seen or been that person that receives a flyer and then proceeds to throw it into the nearest trash can that you find?
Virtual events can produce drastically lower emissions.
Research published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies and supported by the University of Michigan’s Global CO2 Initiative show that virtual events do not mean net zero emissions. However, they generate drastically lower emissions compared to in-person meetings. Their research even did a case study that proved an online event had 66 times fewer emissions than an in-person event.
Another research conducted by WSP in the Spring of 2021 analysed seven virtual events. WSP is a world-renowned engineering & professional services consulting firm. They’re known to help some of the biggest companies in the world understand their environmental impact and structure greener solutions.
Compared to being held on-site, the seven events analysed contributed to a large amount of emissions avoidance over the last four years. For comparison, the emissions avoidance is equivalent to saving 9,230,827 acres of US forests in one year, about 48 times the size of New York.
While some virtual elements like video streaming use energy and impact the environment, it’s still minimal compared to the impact of long-distance travel. Even if you use carbon emission calculators to over-estimate carbon emissions from digital communication technology, the footprint is smaller than in-person events.
Why? Because of the four areas that contribute to most of an event’s footprint. You produce less waste by not needing to print agendas, flyers, posters, banners, and other communication material. There’s also typically no need for long-distance travel or large-scale food & beverage services.
With all this knowledge in mind, it seems that it makes the most sense to go virtual but what happens if it’s still essential for your business to host in-person events? Or if you plan to go hybrid? What can you do to try to reduce your carbon footprint?
How to reduce your carbon footprint for any event format – virtual, in-person, or hybrid
If you can, send out the materials digitally to reduce print collateral. If you need to print out event collateral, make sure to choose materials that have a lower carbon footprint. According to the research done by University of Michigan, reducing the volume and changing the event material, finish & format can reduce your event’s environmental footprint by at least 10%.
We recommend skipping the generic giveaways because your attendees, more than likely, still have a collection of similar giveaways from previous events that they have yet to finish using.
It’s probably best to not assume that all your attendees will want to receive a gift or event giveaway. If it helps, do an attendee survey to ensure any gifts are valuable to your audience and only purchase giveaways that don’t contribute mainly to the footprint of shipping.
Event Food and Beverage
Although sourcing local ingredients reduces carbon emissions, it is only a slight difference compared to serving low-carbon food. Serving plant-based foods is better because animal-based foods tend to have a higher footprint.
Is the location you choose committed to sustainability? Do they recycle, and what types of energy efficiency steps have they taken, like switching to LED light bulbs and using motion-sensing lights?
Network Data Transfers
University of Michigan’s research shows that over 60% of carbon emissions from a large virtual event are associated with network data transfers. In simple terms, it means uploading and downloading data through video calls, streaming, etc. Here are some things you can do to reduce network data transfers:
- Turn off attendee webcams and microphones if the speaker does not require interaction with attendees, e.g. during a keynote speech or long presentation. Turning off the camera can save up to 96% of an attendee’s footprint.
- Ask presenters to compress media files to reduce the file size before sharing them with attendees. The same goes for any graphics, photos, and videos you upload onto your event website because transmitting larger files generally consumes more energy.
- Encourage attendees to watch videos in Standard Definition (SD) instead of High Definition (HD).
- Provide opportunities for attendees to communicate via text-based services such as Discord or Slack.
- Remind attendees to delete unnecessary emails and files after the event.
- Encourage attendees to use smaller devices and screens because they use less energy.
Regional Event Hubs
If your event draws people from all over the world, consider having regional hubs instead of one location. Spreading out the event over a few places can eliminate carbon emissions from air travel while maintaining the benefits of in-person collaboration. Global Citizen Live did this by hosting their 24-hour event in several cities and also virtually. You can calculate your travel carbon emissions with this calculator here.
Frequency of In-Person or Hybrid Events
If it makes sense, consider hosting your in-person event only every other year. Reducing the frequency of your events lowers your footprint by half. It also increases participation and equity by allowing less well-funded colleagues to attend in the virtual years.
Hardware and Equipment
Avoid purchasing new hardware and equipment if you’re looking to keep the environmental impact of virtual events to a minimum. Consider hiring/renting or partnering with a supplier that has a strong track record of sustainability efforts. It only makes sense to invest in owning hardware if you plan to use it regularly.
Other benefits you get from reducing your environmental impact.
When virtual events saw an increase in 2020, the media praised that they produced significantly fewer carbon emissions than in-person events.
If you’re smart enough, you’ll use sustainability efforts as a competitive advantage. Putting sustainability at the forefront of your events will also allow you to rethink why you’re staging a physical event:
- Are you organising an event for the sake of it, or is your event going to have more thought and planning put into it?
- Will your event have a meaningful impact & message that your attendees can take away from it?
Even putting aside the environmental benefits, virtual events allow you to increase the frequency of events to bring people together sooner rather than later. Despite how valuable some events can be, it will be hard to convince attendees to travel long distances to a few of your events throughout the year. By having multiple events held virtually, you have the opportunity to further tailor each event to your attendees – which makes it more valuable.
Going green doesn’t have to affect your bottom line.