Why the Events Sector Must Commit Now to Net-Zero Carbon Initiatives

Alarming evidence of the man-made climate crisis should be a call to action for meeting professionals.

Photograph by DisobeyArt for Adobe Stock
Photograph by DisobeyArt for Adobe Stock

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an alarming new assessment report Monday, which concluded that the world has warmed nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the Industrial Revolution began. This should be vitally important to meeting professionals, says Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, who’s on a U.N.-supported mission to transform the global events sector, as detailed in Northstar’s recent Eventful podcast. Sadly, though, it has been very difficult to spur this industry into action, she told me this week.

Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events
Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events

A summary of key findings from the report concludes that humanity is unequivocally responsible for climate change — the direct cause of more severe and frequent storms, fires, floods and droughts. All this will keep getting worse until we reduce our greenhouse-gas pollution to zero, which can be accomplished only by dramatically and quickly reducing the use of oil, coal and gas worldwide.

IPCC’s Aug. 8 press conference on the report, which had a virtual audience of 5,000, is a “must-listen for our industry,” according to Pelham, and not only for its dire content. Before discussing the findings, IPCC secretary Abdalah Mokssit talked for nearly four minutes about IPCC’s first-ever virtual event, the two-week approval meeting during which a record 739 experts reviewed and discussed the findings. Participants spent a total of 186 hours on the digital-event platform, said Mokssit, without a single technical glitch. “Many delegates in their closing statements said this was the most successful IPCC approval session they can remember,” he said, emphasizing that all previous IPCC meetings were conducted in person.

Pelham listened to this preamble, mouth agape, and thought: “This is the future of the events industry.” She added, “He’s not saying this to event professionals, because he doesn’t know we exist. And the majority of us won’t be listening to him, either. But he will affect policy by saying, ‘We've got problems on earth now — and, by the way, we can do everything we need to do virtually.’”

Pelham isn’t advocating that we eliminate in-person events, but that we must act now to transform our industry in order to meet critical climate initiatives. To that end, Positive Impact Events, a nonprofit dedicated to creating a sustainable events industry, recently launched Road to COP26: Event Sector Transformation. The program, part of UNFCCC Race to Zero campaign, aims to have at least 1,000 businesses in the events sector commit to a net-zero carbon target. Pelham hopes to secure those pledges before COP26, the U.N.’s 26th Climate Change Conference taking place Oct. 31–Nov. 12 in Glasgow. To date, she has a disappointing 40 commitments.

Where do we go from here? Following are highlights from our discussion on Monday. 

Were you surprised that the IPCC press conference started with an endorsement of virtual meetings?

It amazed me. I wasn’t expecting something like this so quickly. Five thousand people who were on that call just heard a group of more than 700 high-level global negotiators say, “We can do all of this online.” If they could do this virtually, what’s the excuse for anyone to use carbon by traveling? 

How can we still argue that face-to-face meetings are necessary?

We all need to be saying, “Yes, we know, we create carbon emissions, and this is what we’re doing about it.” Our new narrative is that in-person events are important for participation and inclusion. Unless we move quickly on that narrative, we're going to miss the boat, because those scientists today said, “Look, we did participation and inclusion virtually.”

Think about peace negotiations, where people sit down and have dinner together, and then they talk about the situation — and they change their minds. I think for virtual meetings to be effective, something of a human connection has to be in place already. The scientists who worked on the IPCC report all know each other. They’ve been meeting in person year after year. 

Some people still don't believe in climate change. Is that part of the problem in our industry?

It's almost too late to worry about that. I'm seeing the sector as a Blockbuster video store scenario. Too many people don’t want to think about this because it changes their business model. In reality, though, it’s a do-or-die scenario. We need solutions. We need a sector carbon target that we're working towards. We all need to be measuring and reporting on the carbon footprint of everything we do. If you don’t have a net-zero carbon target, you’ve got no future in any business.

We as an industry have to say: “We get it. We are not good with carbon. We’ve made a commitment to be net zero.” It’s okay that we don't know exactly how to do it. First comes the commitment, and innovation will follow. We don’t have any more time to waste. 

Most meeting professionals would say they don’t have the time or resources to measure their carbon footprint.

That’s right — but it has to be a priority. We need everyone in the industry to sign up to a net-zero carbon commitment. When you sign up, you get taken through six steps that the United Nations and the SME Climate Hub have created. The steps direct you to actions by asking you things like, “What's your strategy? How are you measuring? How are you engaging with your supply chain? How are you reducing your own emissions?” 

The program doesn't give you a checklist of what you need to do, because that doesn't work. Your event in New York City for 10 people in a five-star hotel will be totally different from another event for 100 people in a little town in the U.K. Instead, it's saying to ask yourself, “What am I doing? What am I measuring? What can I learn from this?” This is the approach other sectors are taking. This is the opportunity for the event sector.

What are some simple ways we can improve our processes?

There are so many things we haven’t been doing as a sector that we could do. In short, this can be described as considering sustainability at every decision point. For example, think of how we choose a location. Do we consider who’s coming and where they’re coming from? Are we using the demographics of the audience and then deciding where the event should be?

Also, what do we really want to happen and how much carbon is that outcome worth? For example, if this is an event for salespeople, could there be one year a face-to-face meeting full of really rich, fully facilitated networking experiences so that they can make enough meaningful contacts to last for the two years following to be virtual meetings?

We could be saying, “We’re using this much carbon to have our meeting, and this is why we want X, Y and Zed to happen in order to make it worthwhile.” It’s those types of conversations, explorations and interventions we need to be making.

How does the Road to COP26: Event Sector Transformation help? 

It gives us an opportunity to raise the profile of the event sector. This initiative is part of the UNFCCC Race to Zero Campaign, so it means event professionals are speaking the language of United Nations, government and business — rather than making our own event initiatives and talking about them within our own event community.

Any business can make a commitment to becoming net zero, and then receive resources to help them get there. The program has six steps, and we do a call to action with every step. The next one is set for Sept. 2, which is a day of activity on measurement. Then on Sept. 21, we have a day of activity on strategy for carbon and human rights commitments. 

What is a realistic goal for right now?

In a perfect world, our sector would say, “Let's go for net zero by 2030.” And then, as we take action, we would discover our challenges and opportunities, from aviation to meat-eating to technology. At that point we would encourage innovation. This is how other sectors, for example fashion and sports, are approaching the challenge. But the first step has to be the sector recognizing the problem, making a commitment to act and starting a new narrative.