Now or never

We answer the 20 most pressing environmental questions facing associations and meeting planners...


According to the latest IPCC report, carbon emissions must peak by 2025 and then start coming down rapidly if we are to have any chance of avoiding ‘catastrophic’ temperature rises. International conferences are the most carbon-intensive activity linked to associations. Here are five sustainability experts cut to the heart of the matter answering the fundamental questions to help associations start their journey towards net zero and assess their progress along the way.


Net zero

A target of completely negating the number of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, to be achieved by reducing emmssions and implementing methods of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Carbon neutral

Making or resulting in no net
release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,
especially as a result of carbon offsetting.

Carbon offseting

The action or process of
compensating for carbon dioxide emissions
arising from industrial or other human activity, by
participating in schemes designed to make equivalent
reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Paris agreement

The Paris Agreement is an international treaty on climate change, adopted in 2015. It covers climate change mitigation, adaptation and finance.

Sustainable Development Goals

A collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a #blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all'.


The process of conveying a flase impression r providing misleading information about sustainability practices.


Race to Zero

Race to Zero is a campaign to rally leadership and support from businesses, cities, regions, and investors for a healthy, resilient, zero-carbon recovery.

Should I pledge net zero or carbon neutral – what’s the difference?

EAM: Carbon neutral means not increasing the current carbon emissions that you’re producing from your activities but achieving reductions through offsetting your activities. So that’s investing in offsetting schemes and having a policy in place not to increase your emissions.

Net zero is better because you’re making a conscious effort to make reductions in the carbon emissions of your activities. With net zero, you’re reducing your carbon emissions to the lowest possible amount before you consider offsetting. You can’t claim to be net zero if you’re not making reductions.

Ellie Ashton Melia, community lead at event sustainability consultancy, isla.

Ellie Ashton Melia, community lead at event sustainability consultancy, isla.

Shawna McKinley, principal at Clear Current Consulting.

Shawna McKinley, principal at Clear Current Consulting.

I’ve heard the meetings industry has various sustainability schemes: should our association opt into one of those?

SM: First look at your own sector because there are multiple net zero pledges for different sectors. You want to be tying into pledges that are relevant to your association’s members who may not be in the business of events. Net zero pledges within the event industry are helpful for event people and can get you on the path within your association, but don’t necessarily reflect what’s going on in your sector. One of the big claims that most companies and associations are tracking is the Race to Zero.

The Race to Zero is essentially the business world’s response to the Paris Agreement on climate change. What the Race to Zero provides is a framework for anyone in any sector to get on the path to be contributing toward targets that are aligned with that agreement.

If I join the Race to Zero, will someone tell me what I need to do?

SM: Race to Zero is like the umbrella and there are partners that focus on pledges that translate Race to Zero into the more specific ways it’s applied. If you’re a small to medium size organisation, there’s the SMA climate hub (SMAclimatehub.
org), where you can get help. But it’s important to underline that everyone’s pathway is different. If you’re going into these initiatives expecting that they’re going to give you the silver bullet of exactly what you need to do, you’re not going to find it.

Who’s going to check we’re doing all the things we’re supposed to be doing?

SM: The net zero police turn up! No, they’re not real. Each partner must conform with pledge criteria. They must put a plan in place within a specific timeframe, act on that plan within a specific timeframe, and publicly report their progress as they
continue to improve. You must meet those criteria to
be a member in good standing of these communities.

And if we don’t?

SM: Right now, the priority is to get as many people participating as possible. It remains to be seen how the quality of pledges, and the extent of action, will be assessed and whether that leads to
anyone being kicked out of the agreements.

I’ve heard about the UN SDGs. What are they?

FP: The Sustainable Development Goals are the United Nations framework for how the world will work for everybody. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals in total and most of them interconnect. Your starting point with the SDGs should be all of them, after undertaking a materiality exercise you then decide your focus.

From a meetings perspective, we now have no choice but
to address SDG 13, Climate Action, to combat climate change and its impacts. Government policy, corporate policy, sponsor expectations and attendee expectations mean they expect to know what the carbon impact of the event is.

Could the SDGs be used for ‘greenwashing’? Organisations saying that their activities align with certain goals but not actually doing much.

FP: Choosing what you deem is the easiest SDG to follow is a form of greenwashing because it says: “Look we’ve done loads on this”, but it was very easy. Organisations need to take a materiality standpoint when choosing its SDGs. Materiality is an exercise to engage stakeholders to understand what environmental, social and governance issues are important to them.

In the events sector, we have ISO 20121, which is the standard for how to plan a sustainable event. Within ISO 20121, there is a section for identifying your issues. So, how
do we stop someone just picking an easy SDG? By changing the way events are planned so that they’re planned in a way that considers the impact of the events and we do that using recognised standards.

Many pledges claim to help your organisation achieve net zero and carbon neutrality, but how do I know they’re authentic?

FP: The word is credibility. There are all sorts of industry
associations within the event sector, we’re seeing all sorts of
labels and badges and initiatives and resources. But are they credible? What’s credible is anything that is aligned with United Nations work and recognised by United Nations or is an international standard body such as ISO or UN.

Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events

Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events

Nancy Zavada, president of sustainable-meetings consultancy MeetGreen.

Nancy Zavada, president of sustainable-meetings consultancy MeetGreen.

It really is just me in the office! How can I make a difference?

NZ: If you’re one person and you are going to have an in-person meeting, home in on waste management because you can start a track toward zero waste. You need to make sure all your RFPs
are asking for recycling, make sure it’s in the contract, make sure it’s happening. You should also focus on reducing. Look at everything you have for the event and ask yourself, ‘Do we really need this? Can we cut down the number of signs?’ There are economic benefits to be had in doing that. Track those savings, because those savings are what you’ll be able to show to your boss and say, ‘Look, I saved $5,000 by either reducing the signs or using electronic signage,’ for example.

Will anything make a difference if delegates are still flying to our meetings?

SM: Aviation accounts for 75-95 per cent of a conference’s
carbon footprint. Analysts are looking at sustainable aviation, talking about electric flights or hydrogen planes, but those are not going to scale up and be viable for at least another 10 to 15 years.

NZ: There’s always been a badge for travel, but we need to step away from The longer that we delay those reductions, the more
damage that’s caused travelling for business for travelling’s sake. this extends to speakers too. Do you need to fly in a speaker from India, for example, or could they deliver their speech remotely?

If we can’t avoid flying, how can we reduce its impact?

NZ: Associations could make their meetings regional so more people can drive or not fly as far. And if it’s not going to be a regional meeting, find out where most of your attendees are coming from and choose a destination close to them. There are huge (carbon) savings to be had if delegates can take a direct flight as opposed to taking several stops.

SM: If you opt for an international conference every second year and in the off-year host regional conventions, that is catalytic to reducing overall airlift, often enabling people in certain regions to shift to trains instead of short-haul flights. It doesn’t have to be this situation of not flying at all. It’s about how can we reduce flying, but it is a tough one, and it’s probably our biggest challenge.

What can we do to encourage our delegates to get the train instead of flying to a conference?

EAM: It comes down to communication. As a meeting
planner, you have the responsibility to find a venue that
has access to public transport.

Then communicate why delegates should opt for the train instead of the plane and be explicit about how many emissions are produced per delegate through flying as opposed to taking the train. Ultimately, you must give them the options and when people know the facts, they can choose to take responsibility for their choices.

Should I be working with the host city to encourage delegates to take the train?

GB: A good destination should be able to offer incentives to encourage delegates to catch the train, such as discounted train fares, but this also needs to be encouraged and communicated by the event organiser.

IMEX, for example, took the initiative to get 30 per cent of their hosted buyers on trains to their conference. That’s a signifcant reduction to the event’s carbon footprint. Once the delegates
are in the destination, you need to consider how they’re going to move around. Ask the destination if they can provide free train passes or reduced fares. Some destinations can even place conference representatives at transport hubs to help delegates
navigate where they’re going.

Guy Bigwood, chief changemaker at Global Destination Sustainability Movement,

Guy Bigwood, chief changemaker at Global Destination Sustainability Movement,

A lot of people dismiss offsetting as greenwashing. Others say it has a place. What’s the truth?

SM: We know we have a limited carbon budget and if we have any chance of staying within two degrees of global warming, never mind 1.5, we must reduce emissions to zero. The longer
we delay those reductions, the more damage is caused because emissions are continuing to accumulate in the atmosphere. Reducing now actually makes quite a bit more difference than
if we offset and support a project that isn’t going to reduce emissions for five or 10 years. If we’re using offsetting to kick the can down the road, then there’s absolutely a case to be made for that being greenwashing.

It takes a long time to grow a tree. Have we got that long?

SM: Tree planting is very popular, and if you’re going down this route, you need to make sure the rights of stakeholder groups have been considered. There’s a lot of issues around forestry assets, the rights of indigenous people and the use of non-native species. Timescales are another issue, with forestry or peatland restoration, you’re paying for an offset now, but the reality is your ambitions are not balanced out until decades later. The shorter the timescale the more quickly the offset will generate avoidance that makes the difference and reduces that long-term damage.

Are there any other kind of offsetting projects?

SM: There’s a whole range of projects out there, but you want to
look at a project that is permanent so that it won’t be undone.
You want it to be additional, so it’s something that needs your
funding to make it happen.

Is ‘sustainable growth’ a contradiction in terms?

GB: If we step away from thinking about growth in economic terms, growth can be social, environmental, and cultural. I want
to shift the thinking away from sustainability to regeneration.
Because sustainability, to most people, is about doing less bad.
It’s about, how do we fly a little bit less, reduce our emissions
by 10 per cent, or get rid of plastic pens? That doesn’t tackle the
systemic issues we have with our world.

So, what’s the alternative?

GB: We must move to another level, which is rethinking
business models or economies, and that is a regenerative business
model, where everything we do is starting to heal and recover or
replenish our economic, environmental, and social systems.


We use a PCO. Isn’t it their job to make sure our events are green?

NZ: We’re all in this together, it’s not down to one person.
During the pandemic, instead of doing their own due diligence,
I saw many planners say, ‘Oh, the venue’s going to take care of
that, they’re supplying PPE and sanitising stations. They’ve got
protocols and we’re just following that.” But they needed to
take responsibility too, in the same way with sustainability.

It’s everybody’s bag. The sustainability director should be enrolling the conference manager and saying, “This is what we’re doing, we’re working together, how can we support you?” We need
to be reporting to stakeholders, involving the vendors, and
asking them what’s new in the way of sustainable materials
and practices.

How can we put pressure on our suppliers to be more sustainable?

EAM: Begin with considering who is in your supply chain,
how they can help, what you can do to help them, for example,
providing them with longer lead times on projects.

You need to understand what innovations they’ve got, what sustainable materials they can order, providing them with briefs and bringing them into that conversation as early as possible so that they have time to find solutions.