June 03, 2021
By Mike Fletcher

In the build-up to World Environment Day on 5 June, it’s worth taking a closer look at the environmental impact of both virtual and hybrid events and suggesting some green-focused do’s and don’ts for any planner wishing to add or maintain virtual elements for hybrid meetings, conferences and other forms of live event activity. 

First though, anyone with a burgeoning interest in the issues surrounding the protection of the planet may be interested to know that from today (3 June) and over this weekend, the United Nations’ Environment Programme is hosting a series of online talks and panel discussions, on a range of subjects relating to Ecosystem Restoration. 

This year has been declared the start of the UN’s Decade on Ecosystem Restoration - a proven measure to fight the climate crisis and enhance food security, water supply and biodiversity. 

Ecosystem restoration will be a hot topic of debate through to 2030 and can take many forms - growing trees, greening cities, re-wilding gardens, changing diets or cleaning up rivers and coasts.

The week after World Environment Day on 11 June, the G7 Summit will bring heads of government from some of the world’s richest nations together at the four-star Carbis Bay Hotel in Cornwall on the south coast of England.

There, they'll discuss global trade, strengthening the international system against future pandemics and tackling climate change.

Then, on 1 November, governments and negotiators from across the world will travel to Glasgow’s SSE Hydro for the United Nations' Climate Change Conference, COP26.

This time, the discussions will be centred around how to keep temperature rises below dangerous levels and prevent the climate crisis from causing even worse catastrophes for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. 

COP26 will be the largest gathering of world leaders ever to take place on British soil so from an event planners’ perspective, it really will mark the return of major events to the UK following the pandemic. 

But what of the events industry’s shared responsibility to become more sustainable in line with the objectives of the G7 Summit, COP26 and World Environment Day? And how are virtual events contributing to this accelerated shift to more environmentally-conscious event planning?

One proposal for the industry as a whole, spearheaded by not-for-profit organisation Positive Impact Events, is to create an event sector climate action framework under the auspices of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The fashion industry did it in 2018 with a target for net-zero emissions by 2050 and the sport and film industries followed suit. 

The aim would be for the MICE industry to create a template for carbon reduction, ahead of COP26, which could then be adopted by event professionals worldwide.

The benefits would include, having a sector target so that when CEOs and the Government questions the carbon impact of say, travel to an event, planners can address these concerns with credibility. 

“Creating a framework this way would allow the events sector to contribute to strategic government and big business conversations whilst raising the profile of the industry and value of events,” Positive Impact, CEO Fiona Pelham says.

Meanwhile, with a majority of event planners still restricted to staging virtual events, it’s useful to understand the current environmental impact of video hosting, event websites, and attendee device usage.

While virtual components like your event website and video streaming do use energy and impact the environment, when compared with say, the impact of long distance business travel, continuing to meet and engage online is the obvious choice. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, those companies that have previously calculated the carbon footprints of in-person versus virtual events found consistently that virtual events have a smaller footprint, even when conservatively over-estimating the carbon emissions from digital communication technology. 

In addition to their reduced carbon footprint, virtual events also typically generate less waste due to the provision of digital-only materials (so no printing or paper wastage ) and no large-scale food and beverage service. 

However, when planners turn their attentions to creating effective hybrid formats, environmental consideration needs to come before delegate numbers.

A return to the same in-person capacities, with the additional global reach of online audiences, will undoubtedly lead to a net increase of environmental impact. 

Therefore, if you intend to use a hybrid format to reduce the environmental footprint of your event, focus on shifting in-person attendees to the virtual attendance option, rather than retaining the same number of delegates who attend 'live'. 

Here are a few other do's and don’ts to consider for truly environmentally conscious virtual event planning

  • Don’t purchase new hardware and equipment if you’re looking to keep the environmental impact of virtual events to a minimum. Hire the technology instead or partner with a supplier with strong sustainability credentials. Printing on paper actually has a lower impact than buying new iPads that will only be used a few times. Only invest in owning hardware if you have a plan to use it regularly.
  • Do encourage attendees to use smaller devices and screens, which use less energy.
  • Do look into greener website hosting for your event site.
  • Do decrease the file sizes of your graphics, photos, and videos. Transmitting larger files generally consumes more energy. 
  • Do remind attendees to turn off their video and microphone when not interacting.
  • Don’t assume that all attendees will want to receive a gift or event materials in the post afterwards. Seek attendee feedback to ensure any gifts are valuable to your audience, and purchase carbon offsets for the footprint of shipping.
  • Finally, Do schedule screen-free breaks and let attendees know they can turn off their screens for a set amount of time without missing any programme content. Suggest healthy ideas like taking a walk or doing breathing exercises. These break ideas are good for your attendees’ eyes, brains, and carbon footprints.
Mike Fletcher

Mike Fletcher

Mike has been writing about the meetings and events industry for almost 20 years as a former editor at Haymarket Media Group, and then as a freelance writer and editor. He currently runs his own content agency, Slippy Media, catering for a wide-range of client requirements, including social strategy, long-form, event photography, event videography, reports, blogs and ghost-written material.
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