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Conferences and Carbon: The Impact Behind the Event

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TerraPass Sponsored Series

Carbon Offsetting
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By Kristi Kaiser

Conferences and events are an integral part of getting business done in today’s world. Even with technologies that make virtual meetings possible — and there are many options for that — there’s still something to be said for getting together for a good, old-fashioned face-to-face event where we can connect with our peers, listen to great content, and engage in learning.

But conferences and events have an inherent impact on the communities where they’re held: some good, some bad. A boost to the local economy is welcomed, for example, but an influx of people can overwhelm local infrastructure or leave behind a significant amount of waste. Events can also generate a large amount of greenhouse gas emissions, leaving behind a big carbon footprint.

The single biggest contributor to an event’s carbon footprint is travel, which accounts for about 90 percent of the carbon emissions from an average event.* Yet accounting and taking responsibility for these emissions often falls to the wayside. It can be overlooked, or it may seem overwhelming, especially with so many moving parts to run an event. Focusing on the carbon emissions associated with travel can easily be ignored — isn’t it enough just to get everyone there?! But if your company has made a commitment to the environment and social responsibility, it should extend to your meetings and other events, too.

So, what’s the right way to address sustainability when there are so many other details to focus on?

There is no absolute authority that tells an event planner exactly what to do and how to address sustainability when planning an event. Shawna McKinley, director of sustainability at MeetGreen, recommends that “Every organization benefits when they sit down and decide what sustainability means to them. Waste, carbon, food issues, social issues—you have to hone in and prioritize what to start with. It’s easy to lack clear focus on where to begin. Consistent guidance can be meaningful in the absence of set rules.”

That guidance can come in many forms: standards like ISO 20121, an event management system and certification launched for the 2012 London Olympics, or the Convention Industry Council’s APEX/ASTM Green Meeting and Events Standards, are available tools to help measure and track the overall sustainability of an event. Meeting industry associations like Meeting Professionals International or Green Meeting Industry Council provide resources for members to help build sustainability into their planning process. And of course there are organizations like MeetGreen, which has been leading the way in sustainable meeting management since 1994.

TerraPass provides guidance in the form of an online carbon footprint calculator, where you can enter details about attendee travel, the venue and meals to get an approximate measurement of the carbon impact created by an event. If you want an easy, accurate and convenient way to know where you stand, this is a great place to start.

The advice TerraPass gives businesses is that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and the same holds true for events. Creating a baseline measurement of carbon emissions allows you to do two things:


  1. Understand the carbon impact of your event so you can identify areas where you have room to make reductions. (Bonus: Reductions often equal cost savings, a win-win.)

  2. Be accountable for your event’s carbon footprint and take responsibility to lower it—or even balance it completely. (Tip: That doesn’t necessarily mean a big line item in your budget.)

Understanding Your Impact


To understand the carbon impact of your event, it’s important to look at energy use in meeting spaces, attendee lodging, travel to and from the event (including flights, driving, and transportation throughout the duration of the event), event waste and meals served. Measuring these aspects can reveal opportunities for lower-carbon alternatives.

A few ideas to consider:

Virtual or Hybrid Events: Take, for example, the myriad options available to make your event virtual: webcasts, live streaming, social media, etc. They provide a lot of flexibility — and a lot of benefits. Virtual or hybrid events mean that content is available to a much broader audience, but with a much lower carbon footprint associated with their “attendance." The required electronics, servers, buildings to house the servers and transmission capabilities all take energy so going hybrid or virtual won’t balance all emissions, but it will significantly reduce the event footprint on a per-attendee basis.

Waste Streams: No doubt about it, events and conferences generate waste — it’s important to understand not only where your waste is coming from, but also where it’s headed. Waste stream efficiencies can do more than just lower your emissions, they can make a positive impact on your bottom line. Eliminating water bottles for Microsoft events resulted in $600,000 in savings. If that business case for banning water bottles isn’t strong enough, just imagine what 600,000 empty plastic bottles laying around looks like—that many bottles could stretch 75 miles!

Location, Location, Location: Likewise, an event’s carbon footprint can be reduced by looking at some of the big decisions in the event planning process, like where the event is held. Many hotels and conference centers have programs in place that reduce water usage or use renewable energy, and even the city you choose can impact your carbon footprint because of the carbon intensity of the local power grid or the availability of public transit in the area.

Next Steps

But what about the emissions you can’t account for? After taking the first step of understanding where your emissions come from and finding ways to address those emissions, your event’s footprint will get smaller year after year. But there will always be emissions you can’t reduce or avoid entirely: event space, food and travel will always have an impact on the environment. Carbon offsets can address that unavoidable event footprint by supporting emission reduction projects.

Just like choosing the right emission reduction project can help companies tell their sustainability story, choosing the right project to support to address your event’s carbon emissions can be a great way to tie together carbon accountability and the non-carbon related impacts your event has on the local community. Supporting a local carbon offset project could bring an additional $664 per mT to the community, according to research by Imperial College London in partnership with the International Carbon Reduction and Offsetting Alliance.

So, how do you balance your event emissions without breaking your event budget? Empower attendees to take on their portion of emissions. Implementing a carbon offset program is simple, and the average footprint is only around 320 pounds of CO2e per attendee per day, but can get as high as 2,000 pounds CO2e when extensive travel is needed. The best, most effective way to start the program is to build the carbon offset right into the registration amount at a minimal cost difference to attendees, typically less than 1 percent of the cost to attend. That way, attendees don’t have to justify additional costs to employers or make separate purchases in order to be a part of the program. Communicating the program to attendees can also position the event — and the company — as an environmental leader.

Sometimes building carbon offsets into the registration costs just isn’t possible, and that’s when making it voluntary for attendees to take responsibility for their carbon footprint is a good option. Having an opt-in or opt-out carbon offset program—while less effective than a built-in option—is still a step in the right direction. And any step, large or small, begins the journey toward taking responsibility for the environmental impact of your event and building the business case for carbon accountability.

What else should you consider besides carbon reduction and accountability? There are a lot of aspects that you can focus on to address sustainability within your event. Sourcing food and beverage, location or site selection, waste management practices, travel, giving back to the local community, using local suppliers and vendors, choosing areas with public transit, reusing materials, going paperless, and so on.

What can you do as an attendee? Take advantage of the sustainability measures that have been put into place for the event. Try to minimize your waste and use those recycling bins, skip the plastic water bottles, use public transportation—not cabs!—and while you are travelling, try to fly direct and lower or raise your hotel thermostat depending on the season.

Image credit: Flickr/ter-burg

*Where does this number (90 percent) come from? Years of calculating the carbon impact of events for our customers. This applies to events where attendees are travelling from all over the country, or even internationally. Local meetings and events tend to have a smaller percentage of emissions attributed to travel. You can see how travel fits into your event’s carbon emissions at www.terrapass.com/calculate.

To learn more about how to reduce your event emissions please contact Nancy Bsales at 973-743-5374

Kristi Kaiser is a Marketing Manager at TerraPass. She is a graduate of the nation's first Associate Degree in Meeting and Event Management program and a former Meeting Professionals International (MPI) Future Leaders Forum award recipient. When she’s not busy designing tools to help companies understand and manage their carbon footprint, you can probably find her crafting an event. Connect with her at linkedin.com/in/kgkaiser.

3p Contributor

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