The event industry has the opportunity and the responsibility to play a game-changing role in reducing carbon emissions. However, it cannot do so by returning to the profoundly unsustainable industry of the past; to succeed, it must change what it stands for.
An Inconvenient Truth
In this video, Global Head of Sustainable Investing for BlackRock Alternatives Teresa O’Flynn paints a clear picture of just how much change is needed. According to data from Breakthrough Energy, in 2020, the world cut its carbon emissions by 2 billion tons, narrowly beating the annual reduction target of 1.7 billion tons. The challenge before us is to keep reducing by 2 billion tons each year until 2050, now hopefully without a pandemic-enforced disruption to travel and face-to-face meetings, just to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
The 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) takes place in November. This event of global importance presents the industry with the unique opportunity to achieve two crucial things that it simply cannot afford to delay.
1. Establishing a carbon target and reduction framework for the event industry.
2. Ensuring events are recognized as a critical way to advance the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs).
As of April 2021, there is little evidence to suggest that the event industry is responding to climate change as more than an inconvenient truth. With time running out, is this something we simply accept?
Why Is the Event Industry Not Taking a Lead Role?
A lack of motivation to act on climate change exists everywhere, also in the event industry. A 2018 Harvard Business Review article summarises these factors as:
1. Acting on climate change represents a trade-off between short-term and long-term benefits.
2. Climate change is a nonlinear problem.
3. Many effects of climate change are distant from most people.
4. The future is always more uncertain than the present.
In addition, there are a few inconvenient truths to be faced here as we look for evidence of these factors in the event industry.
- The business model for events does not focus on long-term benefits, only short term profits.
- We speak more about the financial gains of those hosting events than how events impact inclusion and collaboration.
- The event industry’s leadership cannot fully comprehend what climate change is or is too focused on financial survival to consider its legacy.
Build Back, But Better
These inconvenient truths have become painfully clear to me over the more than 15 years that I have led a not-for-profit that educated and collaborated with event stakeholders to create a sustainable event industry. During that time, I’ve been able to ‘look behind the curtain,’ and what I found is that the industry simply is not willing to take immediate or impactful action. The industry’s negative impact is too much to deal with, and the potential positive effects it can have are too abstract. It’s never a priority (pre, during, or post covid)
Could the Event Industry’s Days Be Numbered?
Should we simply assume that the event industry has a limited lifespan and will be deemed a non-essential carbon-creating activity in the not too distant future?
Perhaps we believe that repeating a favorite mantra that “people will always want to meet” will somehow override the scientific facts.
The event industry has been talking about sustainability for years, yet it has not taken the actions required to make it part of the solution. Here’s the thing. It doesn’t have to be like this. The event industry can and should be part of the solution, but it’s not — at least not yet.
There is an opportunity for this to be a wake-up call for immediate action, which results in a new narrative that positions events as part of the solution to the world working for everyone and not part of the carbon-creating problem.
What Can We Do About It?
Over the past 12 months, I’ve been on a mission through the non-profit Positive Impact to upskill 100,000 event professionals on sustainability through a global community of 1,400+ sustainability ambassadors. Our funding comes from everywhere and nowhere, but our mission remains the same: to create a sustainable event industry.
The opportunity for action lies in the hands of every event professional — and that includes you, the reader.
Ten years ago, that may have sounded overwhelming. Today, as the younger generations make the expectations for action on climate change clear, you may be inspired to realize that action in the event industry depends on you, and there is an immediate opportunity for your actions.
1. Support fundraising for stakeholder engagement so that the event industry can collaborate with the United Nations to understand its carbon impact.
2. Take part in the stakeholder engagement facilitated by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to give your input on what a carbon target for the event industry could be. For example, should we be aligned with corporate commitments like net-zero by 2050?
3. Take actions to reduce your event carbon footprint in line with the Climate Action Framework facilitated by UNFCCC through actions such as choosing vegetarian meals, implementing ISO 20121, or simply sourcing items locally.
4. Proudly tell your clients, suppliers, peers, and your communities (especially future generations) that you are taking action in line with science-based targets supported by the UN body for Climate Change in a way that the world’s governments and businesses will understand.
The time has passed for the distractions of talking on panels about sustainability or taking time to do an education certificate. Now is the time to take practical action to raise funds, give input, and use materials that will position the event industry as part of a United Nations-level conversation. This is the only way the event industry can be recognized as a vital part of a world where we act to address climate change and its inequalities.
Although current evidence suggests that the event industry is treating climate change as an inconvenient truth, opportunities for immediate action are in place. No other leaders are coming to address this; only your actions, which together add up to our collective efforts, will decide the future of the event industry.
BY FIONA PELHAN APRIL 21, 2021