COP26 and the sustainable future of events

By Alex Hughes, co-founder, Totem Hybrid Events.

Covid-19 was a ‘reset’ moment for the events industry. We stopped, we worried, and we all responded in different ways to that moment – and we are still adapting to the ripples of change.

Alongside that reset, something else happened – something which came as a surprise to many. We saw Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues move into the foreground for business, something which it had been able to marginalise or ignore for too long. The onus shifted onto what big business can do to help society and the wider world.

In that moment of pause for the events world, many of us thought about our ESG responsibilities much more seriously – and also about the potential for reputational damage by ignoring these issues.

COP26 and the focus on events

There was a lot to think about. Event management choices have a huge impact on the environment. In the UK alone, the events industry emits 1.2 billion kg of CO2 emissions every year. From supply chains to programming, waste reduction to travel, venues to marketing – all of these potential pitfalls require important decision-making and reputational reckoning.

But it would be completely wrong for us to look at this situation as an exercise in damage limitation. We also have huge opportunities to bring about positive change in many ways across all industries. Events provide a place to share ideas and to accelerate sustainable change on a global scale. And with the right systems in place, events can also have a much smaller negative impact on the planet.

One event that aims to achieve great things is of course COP26. As the UN Climate change conference sets out to secure global net zero by mid-century and keep 1.5 degrees within reach, countries are being asked to come forward with ambitious 2030 emissions reductions targets that align with reaching net zero by the middle of the century.

But as the main architect of the Paris climate agreement, Christiana Figueres, recently commented, it will be key for the event’s organisers to use some element of hybrid and to find the “sweet spot” between physical and virtual to allow for safe and efficient negotiations.

The advantage of hybrid

Hybrid event technology represents the sustainable future of events, in which people from across the world can attend from anywhere and vastly reduce the carbon footprint of the event in doing so. But in fact, there is a range of ground-breaking tech that can help to further offset climate dangers, enabling all events organisers large and small to present a better future for the event industry, and to reduce CO2 emissions.

As an example of how this can work, we’ve recently been involved in turning Climate Week NYC into a hybrid event. This brought speakers including the Governor of New York, Kathy Hochul, Al Gore and Bill Gates to a global audience with minimal impact on the environment, allowing attendees to log in using a virtual events platform.

The event was a huge focus for the global sustainability movement ahead of COP26, with over 3,000 registrations from senior business and government leaders taking part across the world.

Moving faster to find solutions

In the model that I’ve just outlined, we need to make every event as good for virtual as it is for those who attend in person. We need to make the user experience equal for everyone, wherever they’re joining from – and that blended experience of the physical and virtual is how we get true engagement for all kinds of attendees.

By allowing people to have an event in their pocket from the moment they leave the house to the moment they get home, we can spread the load of personal impact wider and deeper. This will make networking as fluid and friction-free as possible.

A hybrid event enables people to use technology to connect more easily. And this is important because the Climate Clock is ticking – counting down the critical time window to reach zero emissions. By using hybrid event technology at important events such as Climate Week and COP26, people can arrive at solutions more quickly.

There is no doubting the importance of face-to-face when it comes to networking – particularly when the ultimate goal is to deliver on promises, however not all stages of the networking process need to be physical until that final moment. Instead of waiting weeks to meet in person, we can meet virtually within minutes, thus accelerating the process of change.

Gamification

Not only does tech offer the opportunity for people to minimise their carbon footprint, it also offers innovative solutions that can make sustainable activities more engaging and therefore more meaningful.

We recently worked with Informa Connect on a mobile App for attendees of its physical events worldwide. This App uses gamification functionality to allow users to collect points that convert into the planting of new mangroves under Million Mangroves, an established and fully validated project that supports positive climate action.

The Million Mangroves project plants and protects mangroves in the Philippines, Kenya and Indonesia that store huge amounts of carbon – up to four times more than rainforests – while protecting wildlife habitats and supporting local communities.

The challenge

The entire events industry needs to come together to find ways to achieve shared sustainability goals via technology and innovation. By offering opportunities and choices to our attendees, sponsors and exhibitors, we can provide more chances to not only reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, but to actively be a driving force in evolving the business world’s approach to ESG.

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