Why the Events Industry Needs a Unified Plan to Cut Carbon

Fiona Pelham of Positive Impact Events favors an aggressive commitment to reach net zero — before 2050.

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With COP26 underway in Glasgow, Scotland, and climate discussions ongoing in the events industry, this article has been updated for clarity. During the United Nations' climate-change conference, governments and industries from around the globe are presenting the strides they’ve made toward reducing the carbon footprint of their respective operations. Where does the events industry stand? We asked Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, to discuss the progress to date and the challenges ahead. To listen to the conversation, check out this week’s episode of Eventful, the podcast for meeting professionals produced by Northstar Meetings Group. Following are highlights from the interview.

What is COP26, and why should it be important to meeting professionals?
World leaders, businesses and civil society come together annually at COP26 to talk about their targets and their progress towards those targets in relation to carbon emissions and climate change. Many people say this is the most important conference of our lifetime because we need a planet to live on. At this conference, governments and businesses are talking about their net zero commitments and their plans and progress to get there.

Organizations are committing to being “net zero” by a certain year. What does that mean?
Simply put, we have got a problem with the amount of carbon emissions in the world, which is damaging to the planet, and we need to reduce those emissions. Net zero is a goal; it's not the perfect solution. We could talk in a lot of detail here about carbon and methane emissions, but I want to give a broad answer and share my opinion that ‘Net Zero’ means understanding your negative impacts and taking the action you need to remove them. 

How might this most significantly impact the events industry?

Fiona Pelham
Fiona Pelham

Just last week, EY [Ernst & Young Global Limited] released a report saying they will be net zero by 2025, and they spoke about some of the actions they've taken. Over the past 10 years, companies have looked at their energy use of their office, their paper usage, the products that they've been making, and what carbon emissions that causes. Now, more and more are looking at their business travel. EY’s report detailed how they were going to achieve net zero, and one of those ways is by reducing business travel. We're going to see more businesses and governments around the world looking at events and business travel, and saying we need to reduce those to reach this net zero goal.

How can we reduce carbon emissions without reducing travel?
This is where the innovation and the change has to come in. Most businesses over the past 10 years have said, let's look at where our emissions are coming from: Let's get clear on that, let's innovate, let's reduce, let's change our procedures. The events sector hasn't done that. That is the gap for the sector.

Isn’t this kind of initiative a threat to the travel and meetings business?
The reality is, without making and acting on a net-zero carbon commitment, you will have no future business. In my opinion, making a commitment means you are future-proofing your business, not having one means you won't be here in five to 10 years. 

What is the Race to Zero?
The Race to Zero is a global campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions and investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth.

It mobilizes a coalition of leading net-zero initiatives, representing 733 cities, 31 regions, 3,067 businesses, 173 of the biggest investors, and 622 higher-education institutions. These "real economy" actors join 120 countries in the largest ever alliance committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest. Collectively these actors now cover nearly 25 percent of global CO2 emissions and more than 50 percent of the GDP.

Led by the High-Level Climate Champions for Climate Action — Nigel Topping and Gonzalo Muñoz — Race to Zero mobilizes actors outside of national governments to join the Climate Ambition Alliance, which was launched at the UN's Climate Action Summit 2019 by the President of Chile, Sebastián Piñera.

The Race to Zero, for the events sector, gives small- to medium-size businesses from around the world the ability to make a net-zero commitment. They can pledge to be net zero by 2030, 2040 or 2050. Then they receive free resources to help them on their journey.

Do you think people are hesitant to make the pledge because they don’t know how to act on it?
Of course. No one knows how to get there, but the first step is making that commitment. Governments are looking at the different sectors that are making these commitments, and the events sector has the opportunity to be recognized as an accelerating sector right now. However, only 2 percent of the businesses that have made a net-zero commitment in the Race to Zero have come from the events sector (we have that data because the sign-up process people go through means we can track event commitments). If we increase that we will get noticed more, which I believe will mean more government support or business support, and a better understanding of our sector.

What happens after they make the pledge?
The first step is making the commitment. Then the Race to Zero for events framework will walk you through other steps, such as implementing different types of measurements, engaging with your supply chain, telling the story about your emissions. These resources have been tailored for the events sector, but they come from the SME Climate Hub and we have asked the UNFCCC if they would like to add materials. These resources will help us speak the same language as the global governments and big businesses that are part of the Race to Zero. For example, the first series of resources define key terminology, like What Are Science-Based Targets and the Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Are meetings industry associations championing this cause?
This is where I'm going to speak very honestly, very bluntly and this is obviously my opinion. The events sector is letting itself down in its territorial approach. Pretty much every association will have some sort of sustainability badge or credential. None of these matter, because they're not recognized outside of the events sector. For many years, Positive Impact has been collaborating with the UNFCCC. In other words, there was a potential future where we could have an ambitious sector target and a reduction plan announced at COP26 that was not branded by one of the two umbrella associations. There hasn't been the support from the associations for that. What has happened is the Joint Meeting Industry Council, one of the two umbrella associations for the event sector, is putting in what I would describe as a very weak initiative with the UNFCCC by asking people to pledge that they are working towards net zero by 2050. It’s the weakest possible commitment that could be made. Every single government and business knows that we need to do this by 2050. It's not really a statement of anything to say the goal is 2050. (See "Another Perspective," below, for JMIC’s take on the initiative.)

How many events industry organizations have signed on to the Race to Zero?
We have about 120 commitments, and more than 70 percent of those have set the goal for 2040. So, we know people in the sector are willing to go for 2040. A pledge for 2050 is nothing that other businesses or governments will look at and go, “Wow, the events sectors going for this. We should collaborate with them. We should understand the importance of events.” It just looks like the sector's moving because it has to. It's disappointing.

Why isn’t our sector taking a stronger and more unified approach?
We have to realize that many business models within our sector are not set up for addressing climate change. This isn't a conversation that everybody wants to further.

I would assume that’s because we have problems to solve in terms of transportation and other things that are critical to our business yet are damaging to the environment.
Yes. The really sad thing about this is we also have an amazing narrative about the importance of events and what we do, and that narrative aligns with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include participation and inclusion in decision making — and that's what we do. However, we can't start that narrative until we've dealt with the most pressing thing that the rest of the world is interested in, which is carbon. So, if we're going to provide a weak solution to the carbon challenge, we're going to be recognized as an industry that isn't innovative, leading, problem solving. We're going to be seen as part of the problem — as a laggard sector, really.

What do we need to do to be part of the solution?
There is a lot to do, from innovating on business models to speaking up for ambitious targets and more. One practical step is to sign up for the Race to Zero. It really is as easy as that. When you sign up for the Race to Zero for Events you will then receive resources — six steps that will take you through to reach your commitment. This time next year, you will be reporting on your progress. And during COP, your name will be included as one of the businesses that have made a commitment as part of the Race to Zero. If every single listener and reader of all of the Northstar publications around the world did it, the conversation within the sector would change, measuring would become normal, new innovations would happen.

This is a difficult time for our industry. People might say time and money are preventing them from prioritizing this.
Yes, it's always been time and money. Again, speaking really bluntly, anyone who wants a business in the next 10 years needs to deal with this. Also, the Race to Zero commitment doesn't require any money to access the resources and get started on your journey there is no cost whatsoever. These resources are free to everyone. 

There's a whole new future for the events sector once we have gotten moving on carbon. And there is no choice really, whether we move on or not. We can pretend there is, but there isn't. If we all made inspiring commitments, there is a new future for our sector, and that could start at the beginning of 2022.

Is there a magic number of commitments we need to move the needle?
Right now, we have 120 commitments from the event sector SME supply chain within the Race to Zero. We know from speaking to the COP26 Champions that when we get to 300, businesses and governments will start talking about the events sector and supporting initiatives to make it more sustainable. 

Ultimately, will we still be having face-to-face events, but do so in a more sustainable way?
Yes. And there's going to be a time in the future where every supplier to the events supply chain will have a net-zero commitment, and that will be the norm because it will be mandated by corporate clients. That time is coming very quickly. We may as well take that step forward and show some leadership.

Another Perspective: Rallying Broad Support

In the lead-up to COP26, the Joint Meetings Industry Council last week launched Net Zero Carbon Events, an initiative that aims to engage the global events industry in a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. To those who consider the 2050 target date a weak commitment, Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, and a JMIC board member, politely begs to differ.

“It is a fine line to walk,” he says, explaining that the target represents a critical start. “I sincerely believe that for a whole sector and its business leaders to officially commit to this target lays the foundation that we need to proceed with the work…. It shows an industry rallying behind a cause.”

Furthermore, he adds, the stated goal is to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest. “For right now, the intent was to get commitments across the whole sector, and different players and regions are at different stages of their climate journey,” notes Hattendorf. “Some companies are already very well advanced, and they will reach the targets much earlier. And it’s easier to implement green practices in some places than in others. Their solutions and examples will very likely empower others to get to the targets faster.”

As of Nov. 3, about 200 organizations had signed on to the initiative, Northstar Travel Group among them. The rest of the signatories will be announced next week in Glasgow.