How UFI’s Kai Hattendorf Helped Launch the Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge

Nearly 200 events industry organizations came together in 2021 to pledge their commitment to a plan to meaningfully reduce the carbon emissions created by the events industry — a coalition that’s doubled in size since then. The PCMA Visionary Award honoree helped connect the dots in record time.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

man accepting award

Kai Hattendorf, CEO, UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, accepts his Business Event Strategist of the Year honor at the 2022 PCMA Visionary Awards in Washington, D.C. The PCMA Foundation cited Hattendorf for his accomplishments, including his role in the development of the Net Zero Carbon Events pledge. (EPNAC Photography and Video)

Last summer, Kai Hattendorf, managing director and CEO of UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, was one of a handful of global industry leaders to whom Kathleen Warden, director of conference sales at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC) in Glasgow, reached out for help. Warden was frustrated, Hattendorf recalled, as the SEC and Glasgow were moving into the final months of preparation to host COP26, the United Nations climate change conference where world leaders would gather to negotiate a plan to curb the effects of climate change. UN staff had been trying to work with event industry representatives to create a plan to reduce carbon emissions generated by the events industry in time to be announced at the conference in the fall. Those efforts, Warden told Hattendorf, were going nowhere.

At the time, Hattendorf was chair of the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC), an advocacy organization made up of major international trade associations affiliated with the business events industry. Through JMIC, Hattendorf had played a key role in the collaboration that created the Global Events Industry Manifesto in 2020, a document outlining 15 ways that business events can play a strategic role in driving economic recovery and renewal following the global disruption of COVID.

Hattendorf also was at the right place at the right time, geographically speaking, to assist Warden in her call for help: UFI’s headquarters are in Bonn, Germany, home to 24 United Nations institutions, among them the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which oversees the annual climate change conference. “The truth of the matter,” Hattendorf told Convene over Zoom, “is that I could meet with Miguel Naranjo, UNFCCC’s program officer, and talk.” The pair went for a long walk in a park and at the end of their conversation, Hattendorf was ready to act. If the event industry wanted to have an agreement in place by the time COP26 was underway, he said, “we needed to get started.”

Hattendorf offered the use of UFI as a pro bono project office for the initiative and began making connections. Within weeks, he said, 100 different entities were working together to hammer out what ultimately became the Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge, organizational commitments to reducing carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2030, as a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050. On Nov. 10, when Hattendorf announced the pledge to the world at COP26, there were 109 signatories, a figure that had grown to 225 by mid-2022. In July, the initiative also had 161 supporters, organizations that support the initiative in principle; in all, signatories and supporters are from 53 countries or regions.

The initiative is both a pledge to undertake the actions that support the goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, as well as a framework for getting there. “I’m proud that we have the most inclusive, biggest-ever collaboration of the industry around this topic, because it is about setting the framework. It is about setting exactly this work — actually agreeing on the metrics and measurements,” Hattendorf said. “If you have metrics and measurements that are aligned, you can audit them, you can certify them, you can do whatever. All the business opportunities won’t change. They will simply be based on something where the whole industry unites behind a model and an approach that puts us on a global level on par with hospitality, transport, and other sectors.”

Kai Hattendorf at COP26

Kai Hattendorf (center) speaks Nov. 10, 2021, at a session at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) at the Scottish Events Campus in Glasgow, Scotland, where the event industry’s Net Zero Carbon Events Pledge was introduced. (Binit Bharadia/UK Government)

Hattendorf has continued his work on the Net Zero Carbon Events initiative, including helping guide a collaborative process to create a roadmap that will be presented at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 7-18, 2022. “The pledge says, ‘This is what we want to do,’” he said. “The roadmap says, ‘This is how we do it.’” The roadmap will serve as a base which pledge signatories can follow or use to set up their own pathways to achieve a 50-per- cent reduction of GHG emissions by 2030, he said. “Most importantly, it will include what to measure and how, and action areas like F&B, energy, waste, stand [booth] building, etc.”

The initiative was developed with the support of the UNFCCC, which previously has worked with sectors including the global hotel industry and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) to set similar targets. “It is so important that we, as the events industry, have a seat at the table,” Hattendorf said. “We have a window here to shape how we want to approach this before someone else regulates us.”

The speed at which the initiative came together last year “plays to a basic strength we have as an industry, and that is to have something ready when the show starts,” Hattendorf said. “And I think the pandemic gave us laser focus on a number of issues.”

Hattendorf said he has a history “in trying to move things from Point A to Point B — I’m happy if I can move something and be useful in the transformation. All I’m trying to do is to connect people around issues. And I’m blessed to be working in an industry that is driven by people.”

On the day that Hattendorf moderated the COP26 panel where the Net Zero Carbon Pledge was announced, he sent out scores of photos and messages commemorating the milestone to the people he had worked alongside to create the initiative. “I wanted to say to them, ‘This is your success,’” he said. “This is the best our industry has to offer — people working together to make things better. And those people are all heroes.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

About the Visionary Awards

Held in Washington, D.C., the annual PCMA Visionary Awards gala was established by the PCMA Foundation to honor and celebrate exceptional achievement in the global business events industry.