Long read: the time for talking about Net Zero is over, it's time for action
Conference News editor and Mash Media editorial director Martin Fullard says the time for talking about sustainability is over, and with COP26 underway, events companies must now take the pledge
It may not have escaped your attention that COP26 is currently underway in Glasgow. Make no mistake, this event will change many aspects of our lives. As November is sustainability month here at Conference News (ok, well, it’s sustainability month for everyone), I thought I would take a look at where we are as an industry when it comes to our own sustainability goals.
As you read this, world leaders and thousands of delegates are undertaking the unenviable task of drafting guidance and mechanisms for a whole raft of things many of us don’t understand. While we understand what deforestation means, how does one cut methane, and how is it measured? And how do you reduce carbon dioxide emissions in practical terms without purposefully collapsing entire industries? It is a series of fine balances and marginal gains weighted against the risk of an economic shockwave. The sensible among us know this won’t happen overnight, and targets of 2030 or 2040 or whatever it might be must seem reasonable when you consider the sheer scale of the task.
Yet, while it is up to world leaders to set policy, it is accepted that businesses all over the world will start looking at ways to reduce their own impact, and that will happen on two levels.
The first thing that businesses of all sizes will do is trim what they see as the ‘low hanging fruit’, and for the events industry and its cousin – the business travel industry – that may not be what they want to hear.
It is entirely likely that business travel and in-person event attendance will be restricted or reduced. If such things require international travel then any delegate is going to have to justify their trip. We know, as an industry which delivers experiences, that in-person events are valuable, but as organisers we are now going to have really demonstrate that value.
This is not the ‘end’ of the events industry, as some alarmists have decried, but rather it should be viewed as a new beginning.
The key to this, though, will be in measurement.
The second is how any given business engages with its community. There are many different ways in which this might be achieved, but it is clear the "why" of why we are doing this event will need to be clear and purposeful. Events will still need to happen, but a deeper appraisal of supply chains and legacy will be required. Do events happen on a smaller, more regional basis, as opposed to bringing vast numbers of people to an area, and where does your food come from? All these things matter.
Race to Zero
The events industry currently has two pledge movements in circulation. Positive Impact and JMIC are both working hard to provide the industry with the support it needs to reduce its impact. Organisers, suppliers, venues and everything in between are encouraged to sign up.
Since 2018, Positive Impact Events in collaboration with UNFCCC Secretariat (the UN body responsible for climate change) have encouraged the event sector to take action and show leadership regarding their carbon emissions. With COP26 in full swing, Positive Impact says that it “could have been announced that the event sector has developed a framework to establish quantitative carbon reduction targets and set a measurable reduction path to achieve net zero, in alignment with #racetozero.”
The global event sector could be showcased as a leading example of demonstrating #buildbackbetter, they say.
The pledge and supporting toolkit is free, and is intended to help businesses assess themselves and establish how they can achieve net zero emissions. Sign up here.
"But there is no events industry"
In January 2021, representatives from the UK Government, COP26, UNFCCC and the UK event sector joined a roundtable to voice their support for the initiative. You can read an overview in this report for more information.
Among the comments was this from Theresa Villiers MP, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Events: “The Government has a key role to play, not least in the decarbonisation of travel, because we know international and domestic travel is the lifeblood of successful events and conferences.”
Good words indeed, but there is one small problem: the events industry, technically, doesn’t exist in the eyes of Government.
Maybe that’s not entirely fair: while we know it exists, it cannot be measured in the same way as other industries, and that comes down to the much-maligned Standardised Industrial Classification (SIC) code problem. Read more here.
Of the 752 codes that do exist, only four relate in any way to our sector, and they are insufficient and incorrectly positioned. The bulk of our companies are consumed elsewhere, such as in hotels and accommodation, transport, PR and marketing, and even ‘services otherwise not defined’.
Until we are measured, we will not be recognised. But, and it’s an important ‘but’, that does not give us an excuse for not signing up to a pledge that really will make a difference.
Signing the pledge
The likelihood of Companies House reorganising the SIC codes so that they better reflect the industry anytime soon is low (hope springs eternal), therefore the industry must accept self-regulation when it comes to sustainability. As there are no barriers to entry – anyone can set up an events company and service the sector – an out-of-the-box series of pledges should be a relatively straightforward thing to embrace.
But, alas, it is not so. Event businesses from all disciplines talk a good game, but action is sluggish.
The idea of a climate action framework for the event sector was moving slowly and involvement of the event industry associations was leading to a decrease in ambition (i.e. consensus was building around the sector aiming for the lowest target in the longest timeframe.), I am told. Positive impact expressed this concern to UNFCCC.
In September 2021, over 40 event industry associations received a letter from Positive Impact and CAFA asking them to join the #racetozero and make a net zero pledge as an association. Positive Impact says that it was over two months before any association would make that commitment raising concerns about the integrity of associations who would market carbon education and pledge making opportunities to their members but not make their own carbon commitments.
In October 2021, over 150 events sector suppliers from around the world has made a net zero commitment and were receiving free resources from the SME climate hub tailored to the event sector. Over 2% of the Race to Zero commitments had come from the events.
UK Government and UNFCCC met to discuss the importance of the event sector supply chain being part of the Race to Zero.
In November 2021, over 72 companies which had stepped forward to be founding members of a Climate Action Framework for events received an update.
But why so few? There are hundreds upon hundreds of events businesses, regardless of how they are registered with Companies House.
It is crucial that the events industry - official of not - takes reducing carbon emissions seriously. This is not turkeys voting for Christmas, as one person put it recently, but it is surely better to be ahead and on the front foot leading other sectors, rather than playing catch-up and being left behind by other industries as they plough their own furrows.
I challenge each events business to sign up to commit to reducing carbon emissions.
The JMIC pledge
Meanwhile, global industry association ICCA in September announced the launch of its 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 was 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. This will be presented on 10 November.
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 netzerocarbonevents.org, 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.
Leading the way
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, and certainly net zero emissions must be a tangible target. 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. 'People, planet, profit,' is the phrase of our time.
It doesn't matter which of the pledges you opt to sign up to - why not sign up to both? - we need to get to Net Zero: that is what matters. We must inspire other industries and lead the way. Make the pledge, or risk being left behind.