A ‘Watershed Moment’ for Events — and the World

How the United Nations’ biggest climate conference — and a critical moment in human history — could change the event industry’s “business as usual” narrative on sustainability.

Author: Barbara Palmer       


COP26 had more than 40,000 registered participants, including 22,274 party delegates, 14,124 observers, and 3,886 media. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

It’s hard to think of a conference with higher stakes than COP26, which took place Oct. 31–Nov. 12 in Glasgow, Scotland. COP26 is shorthand for the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties, a summit which brought leaders from more than 130 nations together to negotiate a global plan to address climate change.

Editor’s note: We are dedicating the November-December edition of Convene fully — our first single-topic issue — to the climate crisis, and what the business events industry is doing to address this global challenge. This is our cover and CMP Series story. Find more Climate Issue stories here.

Before it began, many were calling the United Nations (UN) conference the “last best hope” for nations to commit to curbing global emissions and avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. In August, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was issued by more than 200 global scientists and academics, “a code red for humanity.” Among the report’s conclusions were that some environmental changes — such as rising sea levels — are now irreversible, and that only strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases could limit climate change.

And it is hard to think of a challenge in the event-organizing world that is bigger than the one that faces Laura Lopez, who for the last five years has been director of conference affairs for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the body which guides the climate change treaty and oversees the annual climate change conference.

The conference, originally scheduled for last November in Glasgow, was canceled because of the pandemic — in May, the decision was made to hold the conference in person in 2021 as originally planned in Glasgow.

When Convene spoke with her in late September, Lopez said she expected between 25,000 to 30,000 people to register — the actual number swelled to more than 40,000. Lopez attributed high attendance during an ongoing pandemic to the fact that participants were eager to meet again in person — even if they were physically distanced — and the critical importance of the climate treaty negotiations. “Certainly, over the past couple of years, there has been a perfect storm of manmade climate disasters that I think raises the awareness,” she said.

The pandemic brought its own mountain of logistical challenges: All participants at COP26 were required to be tested daily and to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering conference venues. And even with a “huge footprint” at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow, where climate treaty negotiations were held in the conference’s Blue Zone, there was “very, very little seating — a 300-seat room now seats 144,” Lopez said. “People may be together, but they won’t be able to see each other — they’ll be masked the whole time. The seats are far apart, so we’re trying to bridge these gaps and still have the experience.”

COP26 Hydro

The Blue Zone at the OVO Hydro on the Scottish Event Campus hosted space where delegations shared their stories at panel discussions, side events, exhibits, and cultural events. It also was the site for negotiations. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

The ‘Woodstock of the Climate Change Set’

Over the years, the conference has grown from a forum strictly for diplomatic negotiations to include a kaleidoscope of public events, protests, and gatherings, becoming what Lopez calls the “Woodstock of the climate change set.” Participation is “far reaching, it’s sometimes unpredictable, and the people who are there really want to be there,” she said. “They don’t want to do this on Zoom.” The event also comes with a “built-in dilemma,” Lopez said — the toll the event itself takes on the environment. Every year, she’s asked by the media and others: “How can you possibly talk about climate change when what you’re doing is increasing the carbon footprint?”

One of the UN’s answers to that question has been to work with the host counties to make sure that COP summits are sustainable, Lopez said. Every person who comes to a COP has their carbon emissions offset, Lopez said, and “everything we do in our supply chains, everything that people have to touch or interact with, has some sustainability element.” (See “Glasgow’s Sustainable Head Start” at the end of this story.) “We are trying to talk the talk and walk the walk,” Lopez told the audience at PCMA’s Convening EMEA in Lausanne, Switzerland, in October, where she participated in a panel session. “But whenever you’re putting together any conference of this size, it becomes sort of unwieldy and out of hand.”

Laura Lopez

Laura Lopez

The pandemic also delivered to Lopez and the UNFCCC an unexpected opportunity to evaluate the impact of removing one large component of the conference’s overall carbon footprint — air travel. When the conference was postponed last year because of COVID-19’s travel restrictions, “the governments who are members said, ‘Well, the climate crisis has not stopped,’” Lopez said. “’So, how do we go forward?’”

RELATED: Laura Lopez: Making ‘the Impossible Happen’

Lopez and UN staff created a three-week-long virtual event held last spring, stripped of the social and networking events that usually accompany the conference and focused on moving negotiations forward. And here, “without exaggerating,” Lopez said, “I think I can say that the experiments did not work.”

Participants did not like being connected by screens for a number of reasons, she said. The technology worked fine for those in developed and middle-income countries, said Lopez, but many participants in less-developed countries didn’t have internet access in their homes and had to travel long hours every day to connect online. And even when they did connect, the internet service wasn’t reliable enough to get work done efficiently.

“We couldn’t hear [participants]. The interpreters couldn’t interpret,” Lopez said. Additionally, the talks occurred over three time zones, “which meant someone was always being inconvenienced, getting up at 5 in the morning or working until 2 a.m.”

In their responses to surveys conducted after the event, participants also talked about how hard it was to build and maintain trust through screens.

“People said, ‘If we have to do this, we will — but we cannot negotiate. We cannot build the trust that we need to go forward on these solutions if we are not together,’” Lopez said. “They said: ‘I need to see the reaction of teams of delegations and bump into them in the registration line. If we do not have the shared experience together in the same place, it’s not the same, and it inhibits our ability to find solutions.’”

COP26 demonstration

Protests, activist street theater, and marches — including one that numbered 100,000 participants — accompanied COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Francis McKee photo)

Bridging the Digital Divide

COP26 in Glasgow found Lopez and the UNFCCC facing another hurdle — using a digital platform to connect those who could not physically be in venues for a variety of reasons to the conference activities. That included those who tested positive for COVID-19 in Glasgow, and were quarantined or treated for illness — the digital platform allowed them to follow along from a hospital or hotel room.

The UNFCCC worked to improve the digital platform, adding more interactivity and the ability to join virtual social events and beefing up the training in advance of the conference — to help make participants “feel as if we are holding their hands,” as they familiarized themselves with the platform, Lopez said.

RELATED: A Reason for Hope

Bitter complaints about the platform continued during COP26, including the critique that the platform served the most privileged participants at the conference. Lopez is trying to walk a fine balance, she said, between being on the cutting-edge of making digital connections happen, while avoiding being in the position of serving only “those people who are more predisposed to technology.” The digital platform “has got to be something where it’s inclusive, as our processes are inclusive. If I’m not thinking of all of the different audiences,” Lopez said, “then I’m not doing my job.”

You have to start, she said, “with these baby steps of getting people used to it and feeling like they’re not missing out on something because they’re not in physical proximity,” she said. “In a couple of years,” Lopez added, “we could theoretically have hubs all around the world,” combining in-person meetings with digital connections. “The pandemic has been devastating, but at the same time, it is a watershed moment. It marks the point at which we say, ‘This is how we did business in the past, and this is how we’re going to do it going forward.’”

COP26 Behind the Scenes

Delegates work on computers or mingle in the Blue Zone just in front of the Eden Project Pavilion during COP26. (Dean Calma/IAEA)

Addressing the ‘Elephant in the Ballroom’

It’s appropriate that, at one of the world’s most significant global events, the meetings industry would have a voice. The negotiations between nations are the centerpiece of the COP meetings, but at every COP, industries make climate pledges at the conference — and this year the event industry stepped into the spotlight.

On Nov. 10, representatives from the global event industry presented a Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge, committing to achieving a 50-percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, as a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. The pledge comes out of an initiative facilitated by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC) and developed by a network of more than 100 event industry companies and stakeholders.

UN COP26 Events Session

Miguel Alejandro Naranjo Gonzalez (right), program officer of the UNFCCC Secretariat, speaks during a COP26 event launching the Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge. Kai Hattendorf, managing director and CEO at UFI, is seated next to him. (Binit Bharadia/UK Government)

The UK.-based nonprofit Positive Impact, which provides education and collaboration to create a sustainable event sector, worked with the UNFCCC and industry groups and in July launched the “Road to COP26: Event Sector Transformation” initiative with a goal of providing support to 1,000 small to medium enterprises (SMEs) within the events sector in making a net-zero pledge. The initiative was at about 15 percent of its goal as the conference started, but the events industry, by making the climate pledge, has succeeded in “giving the events sector the opportunity to be part of the conversation,” said Positive Impact’s CEO, Fiona Pelham.

“The events sector is very good at doing initiatives within what you could call the ‘event bubble,’ where other event people hear about them, but our corporate clients and the global governments who procure events don’t hear about or understand the initiatives because they’re in event language,” Pelham said.

RELATED: Seeing the Forest for the Trees

The climate pledges directly address what Nancy Zavada, the founder of U.S.-based sustainable events agency MeetGreen, has called “the elephant in the ballroom” — the unwillingness of the meetings industry to quantify its footprint related to carbon emissions, including air travel.


Fiona Pelham

“We need to be ready to measure our carbon footprint so that we can talk clearly and transparently” about reducing emissions, Pelham said. “The reality is the sector is not measuring and it is not the norm for everyone’s carbon footprint to be known related to their event behavior.”

Event planners need to become skilled at quantifying the output from bringing people together in person, and weighing it against the inputs, including the cost of carbon emissions, Kai Hattendorf, managing director and CEO at UFI, the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, which is a signatory to the climate pledge, said in an interview with James Latham on the JMIC-sponsored video series, The Iceberg. “There is a digital dialogue going on all of the time,” Hattendorf said, but “we meet when it matters. … To solve the biggest problems, we bring people together.”

The pandemic has forced us all to connect in a different way, Pelham said. “And that actually came at the right time for the world’s conversation about carbon, because all of a sudden, the world realized that we could connect — maybe not in exactly the same way, but we could connect virtually.

“I don’t think anyone in the world would say, we should never connect face-to-face again,” Pelham added. “But the narrative has now changed to: What is the carbon impact of the way we are choosing to connect?”

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Climate activists walk a giant puppet of a sea goddess made entirely of recycled materials through Glasgow during COP26. The Scottish city has a proven commitment to sustainability. (Courtesy of Scottish Government)

Glasgow’s Sustainable Head Start

Glasgow, Scotland, the host city for COP26 climate change conference held during the first two weeks in November, already had a proven track record for hosting large-scale international events, including the 2014 Commonwealth Games, which had nearly 7 million visitors over a 10-day period.

But equally important, the city had a proven commitment to sustainability — Glasgow Convention Bureau was the first of its kind in Europe to gain Green Tourism accreditation and the city is ranked No. 4 in the world in the Global Destination Sustainability Index. The index is an initiative of the Global Destination Sustainability Movement, an organization that benchmarks destinations based on their sustainability performance in the tourism and events industry. Through its Sustainable Glasgow campaign, a partnership of businesses and academic and government institutions, the city has set a target for carbon neutrality by 2030, and “aims to be one of the greenest cities in Europe,” said Aileen Crawford, head of tourism and conventions at the Glasgow Convention Bureau. The bureau also offers a toolkit and support to help conference organizers deliver sustainable conferences, Crawford said.

RELATED: Glasgow Convention Bureau is First DMO to Join Tourism Declares Climate Emergency

Such sustainability measures once were a voluntary part of the agreement between the UN and countries hosting UN climate conferences, said the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Laura Lopez. But beginning at COP25, which was held in 2019 in Madrid, sustainability initiatives — encompassing everything from providing sustainable venues and transportation to managing waste — have become mandatory, Lopez said.

One of the results of that is that before her office even starts making a sustainability plan for the conference, the host city “is way ahead of the game — everything around the way they operate is already sustainable,” Lopez said. “We’ll just add to that.”

Sustainability is no longer a choice, Lopez said. “The events sector is connected to every other part of society that is being forced to change” around sustainability practices. And, she added, “the negative of not doing it now is so great.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

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