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Green planet: for business events, the stakes have never been higher

There is broad scientific consensus that for the world to reduce its carbon emissions steeply enough to prevent catastrophic global heating, humanity as a whole must quickly get its act together.

Some polluters are bigger than others, but everyone has a role in preventing the frivolous release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – from individuals, to SMEs, to corporate behemoths.

The focus might be on oil companies, heavy industry, agriculture, and transport, but more and more sectors are committing to carbon reduction targets – no matter the degree of media scrutiny.

From information technology to fashion, sport to finance, companies and organisations from all over the world are now aligning with the long-term goals of the Paris Agreement.

Of course, the rigour of these commitments depends on various factors: who sets the targets in the first place and how progress is monitored and reported, but the direction of travel is clear.

One notable exception is the events sector, which again finds itself in a taxonomical black hole. This is not to say the sector is neglecting its responsibilities. Venue operators and city leaders have certainly taken steps to clean up their act in recent years in relation to hosting events. But the sector is not talking the language of targets.

You could reasonably argue that targets for the ‘events sector’ are implicitly covered by the companies and associations – attached to other industries (automotive, fashion, sport etc) – who own the events.

Maybe, in some cases. But there’s a big problem here.

It leaves a wide range of event industry suppliers, including DMOs and the operators of meetings facilities (convention centres, conference hotels, academic venues etc) out of the loop.

Where do agencies, PCOs and commercial event producers fit into all this?

Without a voice at the table, everyone who considers themselves a part of the business events or ‘meetings’ industry  – who can best articulate its value – is, effectively, putting their future in the hands of others.

Companies who have committed to reducing their carbon targets are already cutting back on business travel and scrapping events to help them meet those targets. The pandemic has clearly exacerbated matters, but it was already happening. In this way the business events sector risks being blind-sided by it own introspection,

As Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, noted in a recent AMI Deep Dive podcast: “Two years ago, we did a review of corporate sustainability reports and there was no mention of events. We started that work again last January and we found that events were being mentioned, but only from the standpoint that corporates were saying, ‘we stopped doing this event to save carbon”.

No sector has been harder hit than business events in the last 12 months, and so it is understandable that the first priority of many in the industry is: ‘stay in business, worry about the planet later’.

This thinking certainly undid a lot of positive work on sustainability in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when it was widely held that the health of the planet could wait. After a short dip, emissions quickly rebounded as the world invested heavily in fossil-fuel intensive growth strategies.

Does our sector – or any other – really have the luxury of choice this time round?

Next week I have been invited to observe a round-table discussion with various parties aimed at establishing an UN-backed carbon target for the business events industry. More on that in due course, but those who think ‘this can wait’ are, perhaps, missing the wider point, which pertains not just to the future health of the planet, but the longevity of their own businesses and organisations.

Pelham argues that we are at ‘the start of a decade of accountability’ in relation to carbon emissions and this is the ‘last chance’ for the business events sector to ‘get involved’ at a sector level.

Her view is clear. Without a voice at the table ‘things will be done to us’ (not with us).

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