Suiting actions to words:

How the American Geophysical Union is guiding meaningful climate action in the business events sector


Earlier this year, the Professional Convention Management Association (PCMA) announced a collaboration with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to further its action on climate change at events.

Shawna McKinley, AMI expert contributor and principal at Clear Current Consulting, asks Lauren Parr, senior vice president of meetings and learning at AGU how the union approaches this intention at its own events, and what association event professionals might expect from its new partnership with PCMA...

How does the AGU approach sustainability in its own meetings?

Since 2020, our strategy on sustainability has been led in part by recommendations from our Virtual Engagement and Sustainable Advisory Group.

This global, member-led group outlined three core elements of sustainability that guide our approach:

  1. Economic feasibility
  2. Environmental soundness
  3. Social equitability.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we rapidly accelerated sustainability for our meetings by expanding virtual accessibility. Since 2011, AGU has offered on-demand and streaming sessions for select presentations. Now, we can convene fully virtual and hybrid meetings, which reduces the environmental impact while making participation more accessible.

We’ve also adopted several onsite sustainability practices including eliminating printed programmes, and reusing meeting structures and signage, and we’re working on carbon labelling.

We are keenly focused on reducing waste produced from the event and on deploying the most sustainable choices for all event supplies including carpeting.

In all aspects of AGU meetings, we seek to partner with vendors, venues and cities that have proven sustainability practices and programs.

For example, we held our 2022 Fall Meeting in Chicago, which has an ambitious plan to target energy-efficient investments. The McCormick Place Convention Center itself is at the forefront of green meetings through its implementation of energy-saving practices, renewable energy sources, recycling and composting initiatives, and a green roof.

Lauren Parr

Lauren Parr

unknown person holding clear glass ball

To what extent are your members asking for and participating in your sustainable meeting efforts?

AGU supports Earth and space scientists worldwide who are out in the field or the lab every day driving the scientific discoveries and solutions we need to address the climate crisis.

Our members are passionate about their own environmental footprint. So it should be of little surprise that the climate impact of participation, like emissions associated with travel, influences our members’ decisions on what, where and how they attend meetings.

Following AGU Fall Meeting 2022, 38 per cent of respondents in our post-meeting survey indicated that reducing their carbon footprint was the reason they chose to attend the meeting virtually. We are grateful to have many members who volunteer their time and talents to help AGU’s sustainability efforts.

For example, some contribute to the various sustainability taskforces and advisory groups which help to improve sustainability across our programs, expand virtual participation, and track our progress for sustainability.

In 2020, Nature published a piece on decarbonising conference travel post-COVID and used the AGU Fall Meeting as a case study. Can you provide an update on the ideas discussed now that travel has resumed?

The AGU Meeting Committee convened a task force in 2019 to develop strategies for assessing and reducing the carbon footprint of all AGU meetings and events. To date, we have implemented several recommendations, some of which were described in this article.

At the time, AGU was already rotating the meeting locations across the US to expand participation while reducing our carbon footprint. We have found that rotating locations significantly increases local attendance (within 200 miles) thus, overall more people attend over a few years.

Rotating locations also allows members to attend when and where it is convenient for them. Regarding transportation, we are increasingly encouraging and incentivising train travel where it’s possible.

AGU also has a long-standing commitment to select meeting locations within walking distance of hotels or readily available public transportation.

Finally, since 2020, we have offered a fully virtual attendance option for all of our meetings and this year, about 25 per cent of attendees went virtual. This has also increased global participation without increased travel costs and supports our goal to be as inclusive as possible. We have experimented with a hub model for some events and will explore this further in the future.

woman standing in train station
building covered in plants

What's the AGU hoping to accomplish through its partnership with PCMA and what is the AGU's role?

The scientific and societal challenges facing our planet, humanity and the environment cannot be addressed solely by the scientific community.

AGU's strategic plan recognises that partnering broadly is essential to achieving our vision of a thriving, sustainable and equitable future.

In January, AGU was excited to announce our partnership with PCMA. We hope that as a convening partner, AGU can help the business events industry move beyond the 'green meeting checklist' we often see in event planning.

We’ve agreed to explore areas like professional education, risk analysis, data needs, the development of common definitions and establishing standard metrics across the industry. Sustainability must be based on a comprehensive strategy for all industry members, not a checklist.

We are excited to partner with PCMA and others to share best practices in sustainability and carbon accounting

How will this work help the event community understand and reduce its carbon footprint?

As an organisation led by scientists, we cannot ignore the scientific process! To improve sustainability practices, we need to start by understanding the data.

Currently, there aren’t harmonised metrics for the business events industry or criteria for potential offsets. So, industry strategists don’t have a clear picture of the choices they can make to design a more sustainable event, including the best questions to ask locations, hotels, suppliers and other partners.

Every location has its own set of challenges and opportunities to create a more sustainable event and by thinking strategically, each event can have a meaningful sustainability profile. This lack of access to carbon labelling and data poses many problems to event professionals looking to advance sustainability.

For example, those interested in pursuing offsets may find themselves with a product that is more about marketing than carbon reduction. It can also lead to decisions based on overly generalised information or misinformation which could result in unintended consequences or conflicting tactics.

Business events professionals need accurate, accessible data to properly include sustainability in their decisions. To build on this access, we also need to offer professionals a diverse range of learning opportunities on everything from understanding the data to implementing a sustainability practice. By approaching sustainability as something we consider every time we meet, we can move beyond the pass/fail conversations that can discourage even trying to improve sustainability.

a blue and purple object on a white surface
a river running through a lush green valley

Are there any steps AGU is taking to reduce the risk of greenwashing related to your own events?

AGU is focused on using our expertise and experiences to educate other organisations about how they can approach the development of their own events. For example, AGU headquarters is the first net-zero energy building renovation in Washington, D.C., and one of the first in the country.

Now, we are using the lessons we learned from this project to teach other building owners, architects and engineers about innovative strategies to go green in the city.

For our meetings, transparency is the key to discouraging greenwashing. We believe it’s critically important to have clear communication with the locations where our meetings are being held so we understand their community’s environmental challenges.

These conversations ensure that the sustainable solutions we choose to deploy are both authentic and realistic