Focusing on zero

EW guest editor Paul Woodward heats up the sustainability debate in the light of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report’s warnings and the exhibition and wider events industry’s initial response to that:

These recent terrifying scenes of flood waters gushing into New York subways drove home the point: Even as Covid-19 has dominated the news and business agenda this year, you would have been hard-pressed not to be aware of the ‘heat dome’ and record temperatures in North America, disastrous wildfires around the world, unseasonal storms, and more. We are all aware of the climate crisis and the importance of it was summed up by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in early August which gave some stark warnings about just how serious are the steps which need to be taken.

But, with the events industry still reeling from the impact of the pandemic and uncertainty still prevalent even as optimism rises, just how much time and attention can the exhibition world afford to pay to this issue? More than you might imagine would seem to be the answer.

Stephanie Mathas is CSR & sustainability manager at RAI Amsterdam as well as the chair of UFI’s Sustainable Development Working Group. She told EW: “Climate change and the way we treat our planet will have an impact on all of us. The IPCC report underlines and emphasises the urgency to act. Within our business and stakeholders, including public authorities and the financial community, we are seeing more and more attention worldwide for sustainability. I expect that this will only increase. Doing nothing is no longer an option”.

Fortunately, there has been a lot going on in the lead up to November's COP26 conference in Glasgow. The new Net Zero Carbon Events initiative is backed by a number of leading industry associations including UFI, ICCA, and AIPC, and it is hosted by the Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC). ICCA and JMIC president James Rees commented at the launch: “The events industry has a special role to play in tackling climate change. We provide the meeting places and market places to work on solutions to the climate crisis. At the same time, we have a responsibility to minimise our own impact on climate change”.

UFI president Anbu Varathan described the initiative as “collaborative and inclusive” covering the whole event industry and said that “it is a new important step”. At its heart, in the first step, is identifying the commitments required for the reduction and neutralisation of event-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. UFI CEO Kai Hattendorf commented that, although sustainability has been growing in importance for all industries, including exhibitions over a number of years, the move toward carbon zero has “exploded on the strategy chart as mission critical”. 

Research on the status of sustainability in exhibitions was published by UFI in late July and noted that “even though the Covid-19 pandemic has severely hit the economy, the fundamentals remain, and sustainability is a strong priority for exhibitions and their participants”. It may be a strong priority, but there is clearly still a long way to go. The report commented that the industry’s transition towards sustainability has progressed to halfway between “only starting” and “very advanced”.

Significant emphasis was placed on what has been a favourite argument of the industry for many years; that doing one trip to meet as many people as possible at a business event can lead to a significant reduction in travel. Clearly, however, much more is needed. The UFI July report noted that while almost three-quarters of exhibitors and visitors “either agreed or strongly agreed that it is important for a trade show to display a strong commitment to sustainability”, only a little over one-third of them said “they would not attend a trade show that does not have a responsible approach to sustainability”. Exhibition participants reportedly rated the industry’s performance on sustainability as “average”.

But pressure is increasingly coming onto companies in the industry from a range of stakeholders including the investment community, which is increasingly focused on demands that their portfolios are ‘green’. And this means that investment with events companies continues to be focused on sustainability initiatives. The UFI report noted that investments from the exhibition industry for programmes related to sustainability had not been as affected as others. In June 2020, it said, while 85% of companies had stopped or decreased their overall level of investments, that was the case for ‘only’ 54% of companies for investments in programmes related to sustainability, and there was ‘no’ or ‘limited impact’ for activities related to sustainability for 51% of them.

Mathas is pretty direct about the importance of this. “We don’t have the luxury to slow down. We should not work on more sustainable, something is sustainable or not. And our industry is not yet this,” she says.

Fiona Pelham of Positive Impact is a specialist focused on sustainability and events for many years. She has also been working on an initiative targeting zero carbon commitments for some time and says that over 50 events sector suppliers have made commitments in the last month alone. She also has strong views on the importance of focusing on this issue as the industry recovers. “Having focused on sustainability for over 15 years I am so biased that when I hear people say ‘we need our business to be back on its feet before we can think about sustainability’ I can’t understand their rationale. There is no getting back on feet for businesses that are not considering sustainability. That time has gone”.

Will the heightened focus on achieving net zero bring with it more regulation? Pelham comments: “The world is likely to see increased regulation on anything which causes carbon emissions. If the work you are doing causes carbon emissions it makes sense to expect regulation”. Giving a specific example, she notes that Glasgow City Council recently announced that anyone ‘booking’ an event during COP26 in Glasgow would have to have a net zero carbon commitment as part of the Race to Zero. “The Road to COP26 Event Sector Transformation is part of the Race to Zero and there is an opportunity to raise the profile of the events sector supply chain if trade bodies, media and spokespeople take action,” Pelham says.

RAI Amsterdam’s Mathas agrees on regulation: “We are already seeing that happening,” she says. But, she notes, “the climate, like Covid, does not take national borders and regional differences into account. Rules or not, the report shows the urgency that every company must critically examine its own form of entrepreneurship and adapt it to the social challenges”.

Pelham has an ambitious vision of how things could evolve. “Imagine if events could be delivered by a net zero supply chain and the carbon footprint of every event was transparently shared. For this future to be possible another medium term change we are likely to see is a change of business models and a change in the people implementing and leading those business models. For there to be a future for any sector, sustainability has to be the sector leadership’s priority”.

And that sort of leadership is clearly what the industry associations are hoping to provide around the COP26 meeting and beyond. As I write this, there is an array of top global players including Freeman, Informa, RX, the Italian Exhibition Group, Javits Center, Koelnmesse, MCI and a number of others registered as participants, and it looks set to have a significant impact.

There is much to be done and it is to be hoped that the various initiatives which have been launched to help lead the events industry toward achieving serious net zero commitments can collaborate in as productive a manner as possible. This is too important an issue and time too pressing to allow for prolonged debate on who should be leading. Everyone needs to be pulling in the same direction here.