An Eventful Change: Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Events

Do you know the carbon footprint of your event? If the answer is no, then it is about time!

Events and conferences are an important part of the business world: here you can connect with others, exchange ideas and present your business to the world. 

While virtual concerts and conferences became increasingly popular during the pandemic (and in many places the only option), more on-site events are taking place again now that times are returning to normal. On the other hand, this also means that the industry's CO2 emissions will start to increase again.

What are the main emission sources in the event scene, and what are some actions that you, either as an event organiser or as a participant, can take to reduce your carbon footprint? Let’s dive right in.

The carbon footprint of events

Events and conferences play an important role in today’s business world, with a constantly increasing interest in participants. In 2017, over 1.5 billion people were participating in business events across more than 180 countries - and that number is expected to grow in the future. In fact, the market size of the event industry is not only expected to grow by 11.2% within the next ten years, but the number of international events and conferences also doubles every decade. 

But events bring a massive footprint with them. Did you know that on average, an attendee at a conference produces about 170 kilograms of CO2 emissions per day, according to a study by MeetGreen

Let’s take a look at one recent example of a big conference - the two-week UN climate conference COP26, which took place in November 2021: according to estimations, the event emitted  about 102,500 tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the annual emissions of approximately 8,000 UK citizens. But where did the majority of emissions actually come from? It is estimated that about two thirds of the conference’s emissions stemmed from the international travel (international flights in particular) of the participants to the venue - making it the single largest source of emissions. However, this is not only the case for COP26, but for events and conferences in general. 

Generally speaking, there are five main areas of emission sources for on-site events. 

1. Participants travelling to event 

Attendees travelling to and from an event can actually take up to 75% of an event's footprint, especially when international travel is involved. This is the area where companies can make the most difference through a change of habits.

2. Hospitality

Multi-day conferences mean that attendees need to find accommodation to stay overnight - and these stays also come with a footprint. Broadly speaking, the larger the hotel (chain) and the higher the star rating, the higher is also the carbon footprint of the hotel. Of course, this does not apply to all hotels, especially since there are already many places that actively start to implement sustainability measures in their daily operations - but it is not yet a common practice for all. Paying attention to aspects like hotel sustainability ratings can help attendees make more conscious choices when searching for their accommodation.

3. Food and Beverages

Food and drinks are an essential part of each event - and with the F&B industry already being one of the most emissions-intensive sectors, it’s probably not surprising that it also plays a role in the event industry's emissions. 

In the best case, caterers for events and conferences would be sourcing ingredients locally and in the needed quantities to avoid food waste and the need for transportation - a detail to pay attention to when selecting suppliers.

4. Waste

A lot of waste gets produced during an event, ranging from food scraps to plastic bottles, printed materials and more. The same study by MeetGreen that we mentioned earlier also found that during a 3-day conference for 1000 people, about 5670 kilograms of waste were created, of which more than 50% would go straight to landfill.

5. Powering of event location

Furthermore, one should not overlook the energy that is needed to power the venue. Although the share of about 4% of the total footprint is relatively small compared to the transport of attendees, it is an easy-win that can easily be changed by switching to green energy or other more environmentally-friendly alternatives. 

Virtual & Hybrid events - an effective climate change mitigation strategy?

The biggest positive impact on the event landscape can be made by shifting from on-site to virtual events - and the pandemic has shown us that it is indeed possible to create some great events virtually. By enabling remote participation, visitors are no longer required to travel to the event location. Given that the travel to and from events can be responsible for up to 75% of emissions, a virtual offering can significantly reduce your events’ carbon footprint. Research found that the shift from an in-person to a virtual conference could potentially result in a reduction of the carbon footprint by 94% and energy use by 90%. This is not to say that virtual events do not require energy and technical equipment to run, but the share is significantly lower compared to on-site events and conferences. 

Moreover, through livestreams, webinars etc. the event can be made available to a much broader audience, enabling participation from all across the world. If you are worried that your virtual event will be less successful due to the lack of personal encounters, keep in mind that there are a number of great tools available to enable a more “personal” experience - interactive features and breakout sessions can create great get-togethers for more human interaction and engagement. 

Yet, if for some reason creating or attending a virtual event is not an option, we have gathered a list of 11 tips on how you - either as an event planner, or as a business attending an event - can contribute to reducing the impact of events.

Top tips how to reduce the impact of events

For event organisers:

#1 Run on green energy: The first one is an easy, but effective switch. Change your energy provider to a greener one, and switch your lighting to LED - this does not only have a positive impact on the environment, but will also help you save money. 

#2 Review the event location: When selecting a venue, you should always keep its location in mind. Is the venue centrally located and easily accessible via public transport, so that staff and visitors don’t have to rely on getting there by car? Besides that, you should review whether or not measures are already being taken at the event site to reduce its footprint (e.g. use of green energy, reduction measures for water and waste…)

#3 Reduce waste & reuse materials: The elimination of disposable items and single-use plastics can also greatly reduce the amount of waste produced during the venue. Instead of disposable items, you can make use of reusable plates, cups, and cutlery, encourage visitors to recycle, and introduce a cup/bottle deposit return system. Alternatively, you can also encourage visitors to bring their own cups to the venue. Moreover, reusing items such as visitor badges etc. also saves you money in the long run. 

#4 Minimise the printing of materials: Opt for digital communication instead - the majority of marketing materials can be presented online these days. Brochures, agendas etc. no longer necessarily have to be printed, but can be made available to visitors through QR codes or an event app. Event announcements and updates can also be made via digital communication channels on your website or social media. 

#5 Change food offering: Introduce more low impact food options, such as plant-based alternatives, at your venue. Moreover, to facilitate the planning of quantities and avoid food waste, you could already ask visitors for diet-specific information during the registration process to adapt accordingly.

#6 Work together with local suppliers: Events require a large number of assets and services, including catering, technical services, event furniture and much more. By collaborating with local suppliers you can not only support your local businesses, but also immensely reduce emissions related to the transport of goods. 

#7 Explain to your attendees why you’re making the switch and publicly communicate about it: The number of businesses that actively look to make greener choices is constantly growing. And since the topic becomes of increasing importance to many people, your venue can stand out here for its efforts and differentiate itself from all the other events. Yet, there will always be participants that are oblivious to that topic, so it is important to explain why you are taking certain actions and what you are planning to achieve with that - raise awareness and educate your attendees. 

For companies attending events: 

#1 Minimise the printing of materials: The same aspect that applies to the organisers of an event also goes for companies participating. Try to reduce your printing of marketing materials as much as possible and ask yourself the question: is it really necessary to print out hundreds of business cards or brochures, or could maybe the use of QR codes to provide others with more information about your business and contact details be a simple swap? Moreover, you should refrain from producing branded freebies, especially since those are often cheaply produced under bad working conditions. Does a branded pen or canvas bag really give an added value to the experience of the participants at your booth? Or can you come up with a different idea to enhance the experience at your stand.

#2 Make the sustainability of an event a selection criterion for attending: When implementing more sustainability measures in your company, it is important to do so in all areas, including event participation. Set a clear sign and make the sustainability efforts of a venue a critical selection criteria for your business attendance. 

#3 Be conscious about your mode of transport: If you can, try to avoid flying to the event location, especially if the event takes place in your own or a neighbouring country. Opt instead for more environmentally-friendly travel options to get to the event city, such as the train or bus. On-site make use of public transport or car-sharing apps to get to the venue, instead of relying on car rentals etc. 

#5 Choose green hotels and accommodations when staying overnight: The accommodation you choose to stay in during your event days also has an impact on the sustainability of the event. While some hotels make little to no effort, others actually go the extra mile to make sustainability a substantial part of their day-to-day business. Search engines like Google also facilitate the search for green(er) hotels these days through their Sustainability Rankings. 

Are you ready to change the event landscape and are looking for some support to do so? Feel free to reach out to us and our experts will make sure to help you along the way. 

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