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COP26: what it means for the events industry

Martin Fullard ponders the global event’s impact and long-lasting legacy over the industry 

In mid-October, The Guardian newspaper ran on its front page that companies sponsoring COP26, which takes place at the SEC, Glasgow, 31 October-12 November, raised formal complaints, blaming “very inexperienced” civil servants for delayed decisions, poor communication, and a breakdown in relations between the organisers and firms.

Alongside Sky, which wrote the letter of complaint, the conference has 10 other major sponsors confirmed, which includes Hitachi, National Grid, Scottish Power and SSE, US tech titan Microsoft, and FTSE companies GSK, NatWest, Reckitt, Sainsbury’s and Unilever. IKEA and Jaguar Land Rover are also on the sponsor’s list as so-called ‘smaller partners’. That, then, is quite a powerful list of businesses to upset; but who are they upset with?

Well, it turns out they are – or were – upset with the civil servants, who The Guardian mistook as ‘organisers’. Former business secretary Alok Sharma is COP26 president, and the event is run, the paper says, from the Cabinet Office. The letter, reports The Guardian, says that the main complaint is that everything feels “very last minute”.

According to the paper, the organisers of COP26 promised sponsors an “outstanding opportunity” and “unique benefits” with the chance to promote their brands in the event’s exhibition space and, crucially, the participation of government ministers at their events.

Of course, many of these promises have apparently been broken and, as you would expect, ministers have not been available for their events as agreed.

“It’s clear that many of them have very little experience managing relationships in the private sector, or even experience attending a COP event,” The Guardian’s source said.

While it is nice of a national newspaper to observe the events industry for once, all this confirms is that civil servants aren’t event organisers, and that what you really need is someone who knows what they are doing, as you will read on p14.

The Government has called itself an organiser, and they have perhaps underestimated the scale of the challenge. However, all this is immaterial. So, what if Sky can’t sell a subscription to a delegation from Greenland? The legacy of this event will change everything.

What is COP26?

Governments from around the world have been meeting for nearly 30 years. COP stands for Conference of the Parties under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and this year’s event is the 26th instalment. Every country in the world is obligated to follow the rules laid out in the resulting treaties, although that doesn’t mean they all do.

The most famous legacy treaty to come out of a COP event was 2015’s event in Paris – the Paris Agreement is something you should be familiar with. The core outcome was that all nations agreed – and were legally bound – to hold global temperature rises to below 2C above pre-industrial levels, while pursuing efforts to limit changes to 1.5C. 

Who is going?

This is no two-day conference: between 25,000 and 30,000 delegates are expected to descend on Glasgow over the 14 days the event is due to run, with 120 of the world’s leaders expected to carry out their top-line duties over the first few days.

Once the world leaders have read their speeches and left, hundreds of representatives will then enter a series of complex negotiations, which will determine what happens next. 

As you might expect, Glasgow is running at hotel occupancy capacity, so much so that two cruise ships have docked at the King George V dock, which adds a further 3,300-bedroom spaces to the city’s bulging inventory. There are more than 12,000 hotel bedrooms in Glasgow itself.

How will COP26 impact the events industry?

We do not know what exactly will come out of COP26 in terms of legally binding treaties, but as the events industry services every sector on earth, it will need to face up to many changes. Carbon off-setting will likely play a major role, but to what level we do not know. Corporates are going to be under intense pressure to demonstrate that they are making changes to limit their impact. Therefore, it is likely that we will see a reduction in business travel.

By way of a case study, in October 2020 Amazon reported that it had saved nearly $1bn in employee travel expenses, as the Covid-19 pandemic kept employees from jumping on planes and moving around. It is a safe assumption that a lot of those savings came from business meetings or event-related activities.

On the face of it, and from Amazon’s point of view, they made a big saving and massively reduced their carbon footprint. What’s not to like? While online virtual events certainly have a place, it is likely that company policies will insist upon them for smaller meetings and training workshops going forward. So will there be a reduction in business travel for smaller events? Yes, it’s likely. But what about those in-person events which are necessary?

When a delegate requests to visit a conference, it is possible that they will have to satisfy a criterion to get the go-ahead. While it is impossible to speculate on what that might be, any conference or event organiser will need to work smarter to ensure their event hits the right notes.

To encourage people to attend your in-person events, you will need to offer something special, and budget-setters and environmental surveyors (if that becomes a role) will need to see evidence of value.  

JMIC leads the race to Net Zero

Global industry association ICCA in September announced the launch of a new initiative: Net Zero Carbon Events. The aim of which is to connect the events industry globally to the rapidly growing movement towards Net Zero by 2050. The initiative is hosted by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC).

The objective is to have a pledge ready for COP26 and to present how their countries will achieve the 50% reduction in Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2030 to deliver on the Paris Agreement.

Through the initiative, JMIC aims to link all stakeholders in the corporate, professional, academic and destination communities worldwide that have also committed to engagement in what is one of the biggest collective challenges we all face today, and to invite those that have not done so yet to join.

The Net Zero Carbon Events initiative aims to bring together a wide range of industry stakeholders to jointly communicate the industry’s commitment to tackling climate change and driving towards net zero by 2050 and to develop common methodologies for measuring the industry’s direct, indirect and supply chain greenhouse gas emissions.

The plans also seek to establish common mechanisms for reporting progress and sharing best practice, arguably the hardest task of them all to actually enforce. The new initiative arises from the work of an organising task force initiated by JMIC members UFI, AIPC and ICCA joined by representatives of Emerald Expositions (US), Freeman (US), HKCEC (China), Informa (UK), Javits Center (US), MCI (Switzerland), Messe München (Germany), RX (UK) and Scottish Event Campus (UK) and it was born from a discussion with the UNFCCC secretariat — which is also supporting the initiative.

You can read more at, but the aim is to grow the initiative that represents the events industry as a whole and provide a collaborative commitment all can act on. 

In a statement that came with the unveiling of the plans, James Rees, JMIC president, said: “Events drive industries and societies. They shape conversations, foster innovation and generate business. They are key to human collaboration. This holds true for every subject – including sustainability and climate change.

“The events industry has a special role to play in tackling climate change. We provide the meeting places and marketplaces to work on solutions to the climate crisis. At the same time, we have a responsibility to minimise our impact on climate change. We are inviting organisations from across the events industry – venues, organisers, exhibitors and suppliers – to join this collaborative effort to drive the events sector towards net zero.”

Let us make the case

By way of short conclusion, those producing events in the future will need to do so with fewer materials and – in the short term at least – probably a reduced budget. But this does not mean the quality of events must suffer. We live in an age where almost everything is measured, and it is possible that corporates will trim their edges as much as they can to meet certain targets. Events can often be misunderstood; they’re not corporate jamborees, they are cradles of business, of knowledge exchange and of positive, tangible legacy. Your job is to demonstrate just how vital they are, and that when they are organised by professional event planners, rather than “young civil servants”, they are of incredible value.

Do not get distracted by the national and international media circus during COP26, which in many cases will look to do the event down. As Greta Thunberg said in September: “I’m not an expert, but we get much more results when we meet in person.”

Let’s prove her right.

To read the magazine version, click here.