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Blog: Sustainability

Get ready to report on the carbon footprint of your events

21 March 2024 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Few people who work in events are unaware that our industry is a major source of carbon emissions.

Not only does an event itself create a significant carbon footprint through catering, the energy requirements of the venue and more, but associated factors such as travel to and from the event can add up to hundreds or even thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions in a short space of time.

According to the University of Freiburg, each attendee at a three-day international conference generates an average of 0.5 to 1.5 tonnes CO2 equivalents.

To put this in context, in order to achieve the Paris 1.5-degree target, each person worldwide would need to be responisble for no more than 2.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalents annually by 2030. That’s how carbon-intensive an event can be and how urgent it is to make our meetings more sustainable.

Most event organisers are already taking greater responsibility for these emissions and working to do something about them. Plenty of promising new groups, initiatives and (yes) events have recently sprung up to focus on this.

Obviously, there are already some compelling reasons to take sustainability seriously.

These include:

  • Delegates, sponsors and exhibitors are increasingly concerned about the climate impact of the events they attend.
  • Brands want to be able to demonstrate their commitment to sustainable corporate behaviours.
  • A climate apocalypse threatens to end human life on Earth through a set of interrelated concurrent factors such as famine, extreme weather, war resulting from resource scarcity and a cocktail of population-level displacement, famine and disease.

But just in case you didn’t think these were compelling enough, event owners are now facing the prospect of having to comply with statutory reporting requirements on sustainability being introduced by governments around the world.

In essence, more and more organisations will be required by law to disclose details of the carbon footprint generated by their operations. And since any events they organise will likely contribute significantly to these numbers, event planners are about to have a challenging new addition to their workload.

What’s happening where?

In Europe the Corporate Sustainability Directive (CSRD) is a new EU directive on sustainability reporting which aims to address the growing demand for companies to disclose transparent and reliable information regarding their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) performance.

All companies – including those not quoted on capital markets – that meet two of the following three criteria are affected:

250 employees
50m EUR turnover
25m EUR balance sheet

Also within scope are publicly listed SMEs that meet two of the following three criteria:

10 employees
900,000 EUR turnover
450,000 EUR balance sheet total

This results in a reporting obligation for roughly 50,000 companies in the EU, as well as non-EU entities with significant sales activity within the EU.

The first wave of affected companies must be ready to report for the financial year 2024.

In the UK, the Sustainability Disclosure Requirements (SDR) regime is the UK’s flagship policy to drive decision-useful information on sustainability across the economy.

SDR will consist of sectoral requirements, introduced by relevant regulators and Government departments, that are underpinned by an overarching framework to promote consistent disclosure throughout the value chain. Regulatory requirements are expected to be introduced later this year.

Meanwhile in the US, the Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) climate disclosure ruling has finally been approved, setting out the level of reporting US public companies will be expected to disclose.

Contrary to expectations, the SEC rule focuses more on disclosing climate-related risks than it does on detailing a company’s emissions. Scopes 1 and 2 are now only required for large accelerated filers (LAF) and accelerated filers (AF), where greenhouse gas (GHG) outcomes are deemed to be material to the company’s financial performance.

Nevertheless, companies must disclose their climate-related risks and how these have had, or are reasonably likely to have, a material impact on the company’s business strategy, results of operations or financial condition.

Graphic of a wind turbine

What does this mean for event managers?

Simply put, because events are often such a major contributor to an organisation’s sustainability footprint, event managers and marketers will be forced to put measures in place to accurately track, calculate and mitigate for the GHG impact of the events they run.

This is no small deal, because business events generate GHG emissions from lots of different sources, only some of which are within the direct control of the event organiser.

Attendees will typically arrange their own travel and accommodation, meaning that this data will have to be obtained from individual participants.

Similarly, exhibitors and sponsors will be responsible for determining the carbon costs of their own stand build, promotional materials, merch etc.

Venues and other suppliers will deal with the specifics of energy and water consumption, recycling, F&B etc. and will likely have to provide that data to you, the event manager.

For now, the focus is heavily on carbon costs, but expect mandatory reporting on the social and economic sustainability of larger events before too long.

How to get started

It’s a lot to take in, but understanding what makes up your event’s carbon footprint is a crucial first step.

A carbon footprint represents the total GHG emissions caused directly or indirectly by an event or activity, measured in terms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

Step 1: Analyse the major contributors

Several factors contribute to an event’s carbon footprint. Generally, these can be broken down into four main areas:

Travel: This is often the largest contributor. It includes the transportation of attendees, staff, and supplies to and from the event location. It could be via cars, buses, trains, or even planes for international attendees.

Energy usage: This includes electricity used at the venue, for lighting, heating or cooling, audio-visual equipment, and other appliances.

Materials and waste: The production and disposal of all materials used during your event contribute to its carbon footprint. This might include food and beverage packaging, promotional materials, and even the stage set-up materials.

Food and beverages: The production, transportation, preparation, and disposal of food and beverages can contribute to carbon emissions significantly.

Graphic of an airliner

Step 2: Collect data

Once you understand the factors contributing to the carbon footprint, the next step is gathering relevant data. You’ll need to calculate the estimated or actual usage in each category.

For example, in travel, you’ll need to consider the total distance travelled by all attendees, the types of transport used, and fuel efficiency. Calculating energy usage on-site will have to consider the total hours of usage, the type and efficiency of electrical appliances used, and the source of your electricity (whether renewable or not).

When it comes to materials and waste, planners will need to quantify the type and volume of materials used and consider the waste disposal method. For food and beverages, consider the type of food (vegetarian food generally has a lower carbon footprint than meat), the method of preparation, and the amount of food waste generated by the event.

Step 3: Apply emission factors

This is the tricky part. Having gathered all the necessary data, the next step is to apply the relevant emission factors to each category. Emission factors are coefficients that quantify the GHG emissions produced per unit of activity or data, like per mile travelled, per kilowatt-hour of electricity used, or per ton of waste disposed of.

Step 4: Calculate the event’s carbon footprint

Now it's time for some maths. Multiply the activity data (step 2) by the relevant emission factor (step 3) for each category. Add up the totals from each category to get your overall event carbon footprint.

Remember, calculating carbon footprints is not an exact science, and it's better to overestimate than underestimate. This gives you a buffer to ensure you’re not lowballing your event’s environmental impact for the purposes of reporting or any offsetting.

Graphic of a cloud with CO2 symbol and the Sun

Step 5: Plan for reduction and offset

Once you’ve calculated your event's carbon footprint, it can be fed into your organisation’s sustainability reporting – whether mandatory or voluntary.

Of course, you can also leverage this performance data to identify areas for potential reductions and make informed decisions to reduce emissions in future events. This could be from initiatives like encouraging carpooling or public transport, investing in more energy-efficient equipment, re-useable display materials, or choosing sustainable food options.

For the remaining unavoidable emissions, your organisation might want to consider purchasing carbon offsets. Offsets are investments in projects that reduce or remove GHG emissions, such as reforestation or renewable energy projects.

Understanding and calculating your event’s carbon footprint is the first step towards planning more sustainable and eco-friendly events.

While the process might seem daunting at first, keep in mind that incremental gains are what really moves organisations forward when it comes to combating climate change. Start small, and gradually incorporate more sustainable practices into your event planning process.

In time you’ll discover the most effective measures to make your particular event greener and in doing so, you’ll be contributing to a more sustainable future for all of us.