Events industry: The long, hard road to net zero

The world is changing before our eyes. As more examples of extreme weather hit the headlines (wildfires in Greece, the US and Australia; cyclones in Fiji and Indonesia; flooding in the UK, Germany, China, India and the US, to name a few), the climate emergency we’re facing couldn’t be more apparent – or more urgent. 

The UK government’s Net Zero Strategy sets out the country’s road map towards net zero emission by 2050, including plans to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels and switch to low carbon travel options like electric vehicles.  

The world needs to move towards net zero. But what does this mean for businesses still reeling from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic?  

The events and exhibition industry was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, with a sense of ongoing uncertainty even as restrictions are lifted and the world returns to its new ‘normal’. With so many other priorities, how much time and effort can the industry realistically spend on this issue? When you start to dig a little, the answer is perhaps more than you might imagine… 

Speaking to Exhibition World about sustainability in the industry, Stephanie Mathas, CSR and sustainability manager at RAI Amsterdam and chair of UFI’s Sustainable Development Working Group explained: “Climate change and the way we treat our planet will have an impact on all of us.”  

She highlights the need to act now, saying: “We are seeing more and more attention worldwide for sustainability. I expect that this will only increase. Doing nothing is no longer an option.” 

November’s COP26 conference in Glasgow certainly helped place sustainability firmly in the spotlight. During the event we saw the new Net Zero Carbon Events initiative (a joint commitment across the events industry to achieve the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Accord) being backed by a number of leading industry associations including UFI, ICCA, and AIPC. 

As James Rees, president of ICCA and JMIC stated: “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.” 

The initiative is collaborative and inclusive, identifying the commitments required to reduce and neutralise event-related greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the pressure caused by the pandemic, sustainability remains a key priority for exhibitions and their participants. But there is still a long way to go. A report looking at sustainability in exhibition, published by UFI, revealed that just over one third of exhibitors and visitors ‘would not attend a trade show that does not have a responsible approach to sustainability.’ 

Increasing pressure from investors is focused on demands to see ‘green’ portfolios from companies. According to the UFI report, investments from the exhibition industry for programmes related to sustainability had not been as affected in the same way as others. 

As Mathas explains: “We don’t have the luxury to slow down.” It’s not a case of companies moving towards ‘more sustainable’. Something is either sustainable or it is not. Suffice to say, the industry still has much work to do. 

We are now at a point where businesses cannot choose to ‘get back on their feet’ before starting to think about sustainability. That ship has sailed. More to the point, no business can even start to get back on track without sustainability at the heart of what they do. 

This quest for net zero is likely to bring with it greater regulation. And rightly so. If you are operating a company that creates carbon emissions, it makes sense to expect regulation. 

So, what’s the ideal scenario? An events industry delivered by a net zero supply chain? Total transparency about the carbon footprint of every event? This future doesn’t have to be a pipedream. It can be a reality – as long as changes are made now and sustainability becomes the industry’s top priority. Starting with its leaders. 

Are you looking to move your business towards net zero? The team at Delta can help – get in touch to find out more: hello@thedeltagroup.co.uk.

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