Business Events and Air Travel — a Climate Conundrum

At a sustainability session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2023, a climate scientist and a panel of events professionals grappled with how to address the events industry’s largest single contributor to global warming. 

Author: Michelle Russell       

panelists at Convening Leaders 2023

Kathleen Warden (from left), Kit Lykketoft, Randy Fiser, Matthew Huber, and Edward Koh take part in an executive session on climate change at PCMA Convening Leaders 2023 in January. (Whatever Media Group)

Matthew Huber, Ph.D., didn’t pull any punches during his presentation at an executive session on climate change at PCMA Convening Leaders 2023 in January in Columbus, Ohio. Huber, a professor of earth, atmospheric, and planetary sciences at Purdue University, and director of Purdue Institute for a Sustainable Future, told his fellow panelists and the audience that if the industry does not address air travel’s contribution to its carbon footprint, we will just “be working around the margins.”

After Huber shared a sobering presentation on global warming scenarios that also included research specific to how events contribute to climate change, events industry panelists discussed sustainability initiatives underway and explored what else needs to be done. The discussion was facilitated by James Latham, founder of Intellectual Capitals and The Iceberg (presented by the Joint Meetings Industry Council). Panelists included Kathleen Warden, director of conference sales at the Scottish Exhibition Campus (SEC); Kit Lykketoft, director of convention at Wonderful Copenhagen, the Copenhagen Convention Bureau; Edward Koh, executive director of conventions, meetings and incentive travel at the Singapore Tourism Board; and Randy Fiser, CEO and executive director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Here are highlights of the session.

Huber provided an overview of climate change in layman terms. “We know that greenhouse gases warm the planet, and carbon dioxide, methane, are greenhouse gases,” he said. “And we know that we are releasing them as a byproduct of most of the things that we do on a daily basis. The unfortunate reality is, whatever you think your job is, as far as the planet is concerned, your main job is releasing carbon, unless you are living in a decarbonized environment.

“Since those emissions scenarios are the byproduct of the choices that we make as people, we have some uncertainty about the choices that people will make in the future. But that uncertainty you can think of as actually your superpower, right? That uncertainty is actually your decision-making power, it gives you the chance to lead. You can decide to emit less or emit more, both in your daily lives and also in your professional role.

“The key point is that if you want the world to warm as little as possible, you have to dramatically reduce emissions. I have really only one innovative point here, and it’s not particularly innovative, which is that as an [industry], one of the main things that you have to realize is that you can try and do your job to cut emissions but unless the emissions are due to air travel decrease, you’ll be working around the margins. If you have to start off by working around the margins, that’s fine — start somewhere. But if you don’t help to tackle the issue of air travel, you’re never going to be able to move the needle very much.”

Huber then shared research conducted by ALLEA, the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities, which calculated the carbon impact of moving a set of academic conferences from different destinations throughout Europe to one central location with a major airport: Frankfurt, Germany. “There was a lot of complex analysis that went into this, but you’re talking about a 20- to 25-percent reduction in emissions just by changing the location, just by changing the venue,” Huber said. “That is a big knob that you can tune to improve the emissions scenario.” The study also looked at the doing away with a printed program, which had little to no emissions impact. And offering only vegan meal options, Huber shared, “was equivalent to having only 25 people not fly” to a 5,000-person conference in terms of carbon savings.

Another example Huber provided is comparing the carbon footprint of a three-day, in-person conference to an entirely virtual event. “I’m not saying that you should do this,” he added, “but I’m just saying, if you look at the numbers you realize that the savings in terms of carbon emissions of going from an in-person conference to entirely virtual are almost entirely due to the air travel. So if you accept that, then you need to be thinking about the array of options in terms of events, going from online as one set of options and fully in person as the other and everything in between (see table below). Hub-based options provide some possible benefits that are actionable, but there is no one-size-fits-all option.”

Tradeoffs Between Different Modalities

There is no one-size-fits-all format solution for events. From a climate perspective, moving to the left on this table is an improvement. Successful decarbonization of flight renders the right side climate-friendly.

Meeting formetOnlineHybridsHub-basedIn-person (optimized location)In-person
Climate sustainabilityHighestHigh, depending on who participates virtuallyHigh, depending on location of hubsLowLowest
Networking opportunitiesAnecdotally reported as lower, but depends on implementationDepends on implementationGood within a hub; between hubs depends on implementationBestBest
Suitability for brainstorming/creativityAnecdotally reported as lower for people not familiar with each otherDepends on implementationExpected highHighHigh
Global inclusivityHighestCan be high, if no “two classes” of participants ariseDepends on hub placementLowLow

The Role of Events

“There’s so much we have no control over,” Latham said. “That’s the scary thing for us — that we’re tremendous users of travel but we have no control over the emissions that are associated with it. So clearly, we can only do what we can control, other than not having events. And so the debate is going to be centered to a large degree around that access between sustainability and legacy. Can we justify why we convene our communities — the social impact, the economic impact, and indeed addressing the environmental impact it’ll require?”

Warden said she believes “the most important thing for people to do is to come up with a strategy as to how you are going to tackle your impact on the planet. I wouldn’t overthink it, I wouldn’t try and have everything perfect in your strategy because you won’t be able to do it. This is an incredibly complex area when you start to dig into it.”

As the host of COP26 in November 2021 in Glasgow, SEC hired a waste and sustainability manager, Warden said. If an organization doesn’t have the ability to bring a sustainability expert on staff, she suggested tapping into a shared resource across different organizations. The idea, she said, is to get “some solid footing of what you can do from somebody who really understands the science behind this.”

The SEC has “put a stake in the ground and said that we want to be net zero by 2030,” Warden said. “It is going to be very difficult, we realize that. We might fail, but we would rather fail trying than not try at all.” The second biggest emitter in the events industry after transportation, she said, is the venue’s energy. The SEC is pursuing a “sophisticated solution that will involve combining lots of different types of renewable energy on site at our venue, most of it we’ll be producing ourselves,” she said. “That’s the goal, but we need governments to support us, we need the funding support to do it.”

In Copenhagen five years ago, Lykketoft said, the convention bureau created a sustainability strategy that has included certification of as many partners — venues, hotels, transporters — in the city as possible. “But,” she added, “I also think it’s highly important that we as destinations take on the responsibility” to help guide organizers to have more sustainable events. To that end, the bureau developed a planning tool for sustainable events, “breaking all of that down so that you can look at your emissions when it comes to food, transportation,” and other event elements, she said. In addition, Copenhagen offers an app for both business and leisure visitors to help them make sustainable choices while in the destination — with the more ambitious goal, Lykketoft added, of inspiring visitors to live more sustainably when they return home.

For its part, the Singapore Tourism Board, Koh said, launched the MICE Sustainability Roadmap at the end of 2022, “with clear standards, intentions, and measurements.” In addition, he said, the bureau is working with agencies, including the Economic Development Board, that has recently invested in a sustainable aviation fuel plant. “The intent,” Koh said, “is to eventually make Singapore the biggest producer of sustainable aviation fuel — a million tons by hopefully the end of this year or next year.”

Collective Good

Fiser said “the marginal impacts that we can have” shouldn’t be downplayed, because they can be multiplied across many venues and events. “When we all act collectively, we can truly begin to see how some of these marginal impacts,” he said, “become magnified impacts in the sector.”

Fiser said the events industry can’t afford to sidestep the air travel emissions problem by saying it’s not our problem. “Collectively, we can influence on how fast we get the investment into new energy sources,” he said. “If it’s left to the oil and gas industry to make those changes, they’re going to run the pace that they want.”

Warden reinforced the business events industry’s value proposition, echoing Latham’s point about legacy events. “I don’t think there’s anyone in this room that doesn’t understand that when you bring incredible minds together you can solve many of the world’s problems, whether it’s medical, engineering, scientific, environmental. We do need to bring people together to

Hub-Based Model

Highlights of the study cited by Matthew Huber in the PCMA Convening Leaders session:

  • Typical conference emissions were calculated to be about 1 ton CO2 per person.
  • 85–90 percent of that is typically due to air travel.
  • There are many ways to minimize this, but substantial reductions (5–45 percent) can be made simply by switching venue to a more central airport.
  • Other initiatives, such as omitting a printed program or switching to vegan meal options, had negligible impact.

From Springer Nature (2022) Academic Flying and the Means of Communication, and ALLEA (2022) Towards Climate Sustainability of the Academic System in Europe and Beyond. Berlin

do the things that can’t be done behind a screen. And having just hosted COP26 in Glasgow just over a year ago, the whole reason that the world’s leaders come together is because of the surreptitious moments that happen, as we know, in the corridors. That’s where real decisions can be made, that’s where real change can happen.”

Lykketoft raised the question: Is biofuel research something the events industry should invest in? “There are many discussions to be had,” she said, “but I do think a very good start that we can agree on is that it’s an industry problem — and an industry responsibility — that we have. There is no room, there is no space, there is no time to pursue self-interest. We have to operate as a collective for the collective good of the sector.”

Taking a COVID Approach

When combatting global warming, AGU’s Randy Fiser asked during the Convening Leaders session, how do we bring all the connected sectors of the events industry together? “How do we bring the airline industry to the table? How do we bring the hotel and restaurant industry to the table? How do we bring destinations to the table? How do we bring associations to the table and all begin to work on these solutions together?”

Addressing air travel’s role in global warming requires an approach similar to the one taken by the world in response to the pandemic, Fiser said.”It’s going to require funding, it’s going to require science, it’s going to require all of us approaching it as a problem like COVID. No one sector has solved COVID for us. We’ve had, as a collective, huge gains in addressing COVID, as an entire set of sectors. But it took all of us working collectively to do that, and I think that’s what we need to do with air travel.”

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.

On the web

  • The SEC’s Kathleen Warden encouraged session participants to refer to the Net Zero Carbon Events Roadmap, which “sets out some pretty critical and obvious milestones that we might want to reach and the key areas of action that you want to be looking at.”
  • The Iceberg reported from Convening Leaders 2023 about the PCMA-AGU partnership. Watch the “PCMA Engages AGU in Acceleration to Net Zero” video.

SOURCES FOR TRADEOFFS GRAPHIC: Jäckle, Sebastian. 2021. Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Academic Conferences by Online Participation: The Case of the 2020 Virtual European Consortium for Political Research General Conference. PS: Political Science & Politics 54(3): 456-461. Jäckle, Sebastian. 2022. The Carbon Footprint of Travelling to International Academic Conferences and Options to Minimise It. In Academic Flying and the Means of Communication, edited by Kristian Bjørkdahl and Adrian Santiago Franco Duharte, pp. 19–52. Singapore: Springer.

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