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Online meetings are much greener: is that all that matters?

A delegate who physically attends a conference will produce around 40 times more carbon emissions than someone engaging online, according to a new study.

The report, produced by engineering firm WSP and commissioned by virtual event provider 6Connex, looked at seven virtual events with an average of 6,900 delegates.

These events included an academic healthcare conference attended by 10,000 people; a women’s leadership conference with 8,800 attendees, and a sales conference with 560 participants.

The study then calculated the carbon emissions that would have been produced by these events if they had been in person. The results indicated that factors such as transportation, waste, and energy consumption of an in-person event produced 40 times more emissions than a virtual event attended by the same number of delegates.

The numbers:

If held on-site, the seven events would have contributed an estimated average of 26,370 tons more of CO2 equivalents, according to WSP, or about 40 times the amount expended during virtual-only events.

26,370 tons of CO2 is equivalent to 5,813 passenger vehicles driven for one year or the emissions produced from powering 3,219 homes for a full year. The most significant carbon emissions would have been generated by the travel to and from the events.

However, the report did not take into account something altogether harder to quantify: the perceived added value of meeting face-to-face compared to meeting online.

The human factor

Anna Abdelnoor, co-founder of sustainable event consultancy isla agreed that virtual events should be the future in the short-medium term, from both an environmental and a health and safety perspective, particularly while Covid still remains a challenge.

“Our global infrastructures – like travel, agriculture and energy – are in the process of transitioning to enable the future we require, and globally we need to drastically reduce global carbon emissions, which is business-critical,” she says.

However, it could be argued that even when a conference’s primary purpose is to tackle the climate crisis, such as the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP), decision-makers need to be in one room for meaningful change to happen.

“Events like COP (where the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015) through to the Olympic Games, which provide an outlet for national cohesion and celebration, in-person events provide real value to individuals, communities and for change-making and shouldn’t be written off,” Abdelnoor added.

According to a study by Forbes Insight, 85 per cent of people say they build stronger, more meaningful business relationships during in-person meetings and conferences. Video conferencing and online meetings have enabled the meetings industry to prevail through a pandemic, but now larger meetings are allowed in many countries, is virtual always the best option?

According to another study by the Harvard Review, 95 per cent of people say face-to-face meetings are a key factor in successfully building and maintaining long-term business relationships.

Factors such as body language, fewer distractions, shared interest, and intentions are all better navigated and determined when everyone is in the same room.

The Head of the European Commission’s climate plans, Frans Timmermans has said this year’s UN climate summit in Glasgow cannot be held virtually if world leaders are to make progress on strengthening cooperation to cut emissions.

In April 2021 a government spokesperson said: “We are not looking to postpone the summit. We are working on the basis of Cop26 being held in person this November, while closely monitoring the Covid situation.”

Ahead of COP26, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) held negotiations online to set out the framework for the upcoming conference. Organisers limited the negotiation sessions to three hours to stave off virtual fatigue and ensure engagement. However, the negotiations were challenged by technical issues and disparate time zones.

The digital divide

The digital divide is highlighted through virtual events and while some associations and other trade bodies have announced financial and hardware support schemes for members and delegates in regions with less robust internet connectivity, these schemes don’t account for power outages and other regional issues.

For critical change to happen quickly and efficiently, meetings that tackle big issues have to be inclusive and accessible – and this isn’t always possible when delegates are starting on different footings.

Despite obvious digital inequities in tech and accessibility, the rise of online meetings has enabled more people to access content and discussions who may have previously missed out due to economic disadvantages, preventing them from attending in-person events. Other restrictive factors including illness, childcare and impaired mobility are minimised with online events.

Critical thinking

Before 2020, the first steps of organising an event were finding a location and a venue. Then pandemic replaced those steps with Zoom, Teams and other virtual event platforms. Now that the international meetings markets are reopening, should association event planners organise in-person events only if absolutely necessary?

“Questioning the need for an in-person event and if it can be delivered virtually is the first point of call for positive climate impact, followed by using in-person experiences to drive positive behavioural and cultural changes – from slow travel to green plates and experience over consumerism”, added Abdelnoor.

While carbon emissions are a vital part of the climate puzzle, there are also other important challenges that we need to tackle – from biodiversity loss to food waste. Human interaction, which in-person events enable, is essential for challenging entrenched ways of thinking about and doing business. If we are to meet our ambitious emissions targets, and reverse environmental degradation, we need to build international networks of proactive and inspired change-makers – who collaborate in-person and online.

By Holly Patrick

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