Facing up to the climate challenge

Sustainability and climate scientist professor Kimberly Nicholas sums up the climate challenge concisely, stressing: “It’s warming. It’s us. We’re sure. It’s bad. We can fix it.” But what role do associations play? How is it us? And how can we fix it?

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The Science

Before associations can chart a response to climate change, it is critical to understand what is happening.

Gasses in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, trap heat at the planet’s surface. This happens naturally and atmospheric carbon dioxide has remained within 300 parts per million (PPM) for over 800,000 years. However, since industrialisation, there has been a rapid rise in CO2 emissions to over 400 PPM, enhancing the warming effect. This increase, along with other greenhouse gasses being added to the atmosphere, has led to approximately 1.2°C of human-caused warming since 1850.

You only need to look as far as the latest news headlines about heatwaves, drought, ice melt, wildfires and other disasters to see how increasing emissions are destabilising the earth’s systems and amplifying the hazards we face. This leads to greater uncertainty, risk and cost for associations and their members. 

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The Source

Almost three-quarters of global emissions are caused by energy use in industry, transport and buildings through the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas. The remainder comes from agriculture, forestry, land use (18 per cent), waste (3 per cent) and direct industrial processes associated with cement and chemicals (5 per cent). 

Assigning responsibility for emissions is tricky but important to do if loss and damage from climate change are to be addressed in a fair way. On one hand we can identify countries that have caused the greatest cumulative and per capita emissions. 

On the other hand, certain segments of the population cause more emissions than others. For example, the top 10 per cent of income earners generate 48 per cent of emissions, while the bottom 50 per cent or earners generate a mere 12 per cent. 

The main sources of emissions from association meetings stem from participant and staff travel, hotels, onsite energy use, food, production materials, freight and waste.

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The Commitment

The Paris Agreement on Climate Change commits country governments to implement steps that limit global average temperature rise to well below 2.0°C while aiming for 1.5°C. 

Non-states can take action in alignment with the goals of the Paris Agreement through the Race to Zero. This campaign engages organisations–including associations and businesses–to reduce emissions by 50 per cent by 2030 on a pathway to net zero emissions by 2050.

Although work is ongoing, Climate Action Tracker indicates that current policies are falling short and 2.7°C of warming is likely by 2100.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has framed the climate challenge using a global carbon budget that must not be exceeded if the planet is to have a chance to limit warming to 1.5°C and 2°C. At the current rate of emissions, that carbon budget will be surpassed in less than seven years for 1.5°C and 25 years for 2.0°C. 

While it is uncertain the extent to which event emissions will erode the budget, researchers project that aviation could account for 17 per cent of the remaining 0.3°C left in the 1.5°C

This makes the climate challenge very clear: zeroing out emissions as fast as possible provides the best chance to flatten temperature rise and reduce the damage. So emissions reduction, combined with efforts to protect nature and store carbon, provide a chance for a safe future. 

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Event sector pathways

But with so many pieces on the climate chessboard, only some of which are controlled by the event community, what is the pathway for association events to decarbonise?

To break it down, let’s borrow from Four Waves of Climate Solutions proposed by Dr. Jonathan Foley, Executive Director of Project Drawdown.

Dr. Foley describes four families of solutions that can address climate change, each with its own timescale:

Quick wins: These near-term steps include the climate 'emergency brakes' that can be used today to stop harm, increase efficiency and reduce waste.

New infrastructure: These solutions transition old systems to lower-carbon alternatives that are ready now, like shifting electricity grids from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Growing natural sinks: Protecting and restoring nature requires long-term investment in biodiversity and future carbon storage.

Deploying new technology: While some solutions exist today, others will take time to research, develop and deploy, including low-carbon aviation and carbon capture.

These four solutions provide a helpful framework for considering how association event organisers, event suppliers and event sector associations can weave together short and long-term strategies in order to address climate change.

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Quick wins

Quick and ambitious action to reduce emissions within the next decade is critical to stretching the carbon budget over a longer period of time. This will buy time for sectors that are hard to decarbonise, like aviation, to innovate so that we can freely meet in person in the long term.


Organisers can choose…

  • Digital and hybrid event strategies
  • Destinations that reduce airlift
  • Co-location with other events
  • Plant-rich catering
  • Low-carbon travel such as trains
  • Zero waste event strategies
  • Fossil fuel-free sponsorship
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Suppliers can support through…

  • Reduced food waste
  • Green building practices
  • Design-for-reuse materials and circular goods
  • Efficient equipment
  • Sharing services such as rental programs
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Associations can advocate for…

  • Energy efficiency and retrofit incentives for building operators
  • Fuel efficiency regulations to reduce vehicle emissions
  • Electric vehicle purchase incentives
  • Zero waste programs
  • Walkable and bikeable cities

New Infrastructure

The event community can support systems to transition by investing in climate solutions that already exist so that they can scale up more quickly.

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Organisers can choose…

  • Destinations and suppliers that are transitioning to renewable energy
  • Transport and freight providers that are switching to electric & zero-emissions vehicles
  • Caterers that are electrifying and avoiding natural gas cooking
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Suppliers can support by…

  • Increasing clean energy use in venues, hotels and catering
  • Converting transportation fleets to electric vehicles
  • Researching and developing alternative, low-impact production materials
  • Optioning clean-powered data services
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Associations can advocate for…

  • Legislated renewable energy targets for regions and states
  • Electric and zero-emissions vehicle infrastructure
  • Public transit investment
  • High-speed rail investment
  • A just transition for displaced workers in high-carbon sectors

Growing Natural Sinks

Whether through philanthropy, program content or high-quality carbon offsets, events can protect and restore sinks that store carbon, while also working to directly reduce event emissions.

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Organisers, suppliers and associations can support through…

  • Event content and activities that help to regenerate nature
  • Climate philanthropy or offsets that restore forests, soils and peatlands

Deploying New Technology

While it may be tempting for association event organisers to adopt a wait and see approach regarding solutions in other sectors, associations can support hard-to-decarbonise industries to take action.

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Organisers, suppliers and associations can support by…

  • Producing and sponsoring events that enable research and innovation to solve difficult emissions reduction problems
  • Pressuring aviation to escalate deployment of low-carbon solutions

Meeting the climate challenge requires all-hands-on-deck, working across short and long-term timelines, including associations and their events.

And while it might be tempting to argue the merits of one sustainable event solution, pledge or standard over another, it’s consistent action on all fronts over time by everyone that will enable us to fix the greatest challenge of our time.

About the author:

Shawna McKinley planned her first event during the 1994 Commonwealth Games when atmospheric carbon dioxide was 356 PPM. With levels now exceeding 415 PPM she works to help organisers lower the carbon cost of their events and ensure they leave a positive climate legacy. Shawna is an AMI Expert Contributor.