Fiona Pelham of Positive Impact Events favours an aggressive commitment to reach net zero — before 2050. 

The United Nations climate change conference, COP26, is now underway in Glasgow, Scotland, where governments and industries from around the globe are presenting the strides they’ve made toward reducing the carbon footprint of their respective operations. Where does the events industry stand? We asked Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact Events, to discuss the progress to date and the challenges ahead. To listen to the conversation, check out this week’s episode of Eventful, the podcast for meeting professionals produced by Northstar Meetings Group. Following are highlights from the interview. 

What is COP26, and why should it be important to meeting professionals?

World leaders, businesses and civil society come together annually at COP26 to talk about their targets and their progress towards those targets in relation to carbon emissions and climate change. Many people say this is the most important conference of our lifetime because we need a planet to live on. At this conference, governments and businesses are talking about their net zero commitments and their plans and progress to get there.

Organizations are committing to being “net zero” by a certain year. What does that mean?

Simply put, we have got a problem with the amount of carbon emissions in the world, which is damaging to the planet, and we need to reduce those emissions. Net zero is a goal; it’s not the perfect solution. It is a term that businesses and governments have been able to coalesce around. The goal is that you measure your environmental impact and then you reduce it so that your impact is eventually at zero.

How might this most significantly impact the events industry?

Just last week, EY [Ernst & Young Global Limited] released a report saying they will be net zero by 2025, and they spoke about some of the actions they’ve taken. Over the past 10 years, companies have looked at their energy use of their office, their paper usage, the products that they’ve been making, and what carbon emissions that causes. Now, more and more are looking at their business travel. EY’s report detailed how they were going to achieve net zero, and one of those ways is by reducing business travel. We’re going to see more businesses and governments around the world looking at events and business travel, and saying we need to reduce those to reach this net zero goal. 

How can we reduce carbon emissions without reducing travel?

This is where the innovation and the change has to come in. Most businesses over the past 10 years have said, let’s look at where our emissions are coming from: Let’s get clear on that, let’s innovate, let’s reduce, let’s change our procedures. The events sector hasn’t done that. That is the gap for the sector.

Isn’t this kind of initiative a threat to the travel and meetings business?

The reality is — in or out — it will kill your business. “In,” you stand some chance of surviving; “out,” you won’t be here in five to 10 years. 

What is the Race to Zero?

The Race to Zero is an UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] initiative being led by the U.K. government. There are many, many carbon pledges around the world. The U.K. government, which is hosting COP26, started the Race to Zero to bring all of those pledges under one umbrella so they could all be understood and transparent and reliable. The Race to Zero, for the events sector, gives small to medium-size businesses from around the world the ability to make a net zero commitment. They can pledge to be net zero by 2030, 2040 or 2050. Then they receive free resources to help them on their journey. 

Do you think people are hesitant to make the pledge because they don’t know how to act on it?

Of course. No one knows how to get there, but the first step is making that commitment. Governments are looking at the different sectors that are making these commitments, and the events sector has the opportunity to be recognized as an accelerating sector right now. However, only 2 percent of the businesses that have made the commitment have come from the events sector. If we increase that we will get noticed more, which will mean more government support or business support, and a better understanding of our sector.

What happens after they make the pledge?

The first step is making the commitment. Then the Race to Zero framework will walk you through other steps, such as implementing different types of measurements, engaging with your supply chain, telling the story about your emissions. These resources have been tailored for the events sector, but they come from the SME Climate Hub and UNFCCC. These are the same resources that global governments and big businesses are using on their own carbon journey. 

Are meetings industry associations championing this cause?

This is where I’m going to speak very honestly and very bluntly. The events sector is letting itself down in its behavior. Pretty much every association will have some sort of sustainability badge or credential. None of these matter, because they’re not recognized outside of the events sector. For many years, Positive Impact has been working with UNFCCC so that we could launch a sector target at COP and a reduction plan. In other words, we would say the events sector commits to be net zero by 2030 or 2040, and here is our plan. There hasn’t been the support from the associations for that. What has happened is the Joint Meeting Industry Council, one of the two umbrella associations for the event sector, is putting in a very weak initiative with UNFCCC by asking people to pledge that they are working towards net zero by 2050. It’s the weakest possible commitment that could be made. Every single government and business knows that we need to do this by 2050. It’s not really a statement of anything to say the goal is 2050. (See “Another Perspective,” below, for JMIC’s take on the initiative.) 

How many events industry organizations have signed on to the Race to Zero?

We have about 120 commitments, and more than 70 percent of those have set the goal for 2040. So, we know people in the sector are willing to go for 2040. A pledge for 2050 is nothing that other businesses or governments will look at and go, “Wow, the events sectors going for this. We should collaborate with them. We should understand the importance of events.” It just looks like the sector’s moving because it has to. It’s disappointing.

Why isn’t our sector taking a stronger and more unified approach?

We have to realize that many business models within our sector are not set up for addressing climate change. This isn’t a conversation that everybody wants to further.

I would assume that’s because we have problems to solve in terms of transportation and other things that are critical to our business yet are damaging to the environment.

Yes. The really sad thing about this is we also have an amazing narrative about the importance of events and what we do, and that narrative aligns with the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals, which include participation and inclusion in decision making — and that’s what we do. However, we can’t start that narrative until we’ve dealt with the most pressing thing that the rest of the world is interested in, which is carbon. So, if we’re going to provide a weak solution to the carbon challenge, we’re going to be recognized as an industry that isn’t innovative, leading, problem solving. We’re going to be seen as part of the problem — as a laggard sector, really. 

What do we need to do to be part of the solution?

Sign up for the Race to Zero. It really is as easy as that. You will then receive resources — six steps that will take you through to reach your commitment. This time next year, you will be reporting on your progress. And during COP, your name will be included as one of the businesses that has made a commitment as part of the Race to Zero. If every single listener and reader of all of the Northstar publications around the world did it, the conversation within the sector would change, measuring would become normal, new innovations would happen. 

This is a difficult time for our industry. People might say time and money are preventing them from prioritizing this. 

Yeah, it’s always been time and money. Again, speaking really bluntly, anyone who wants a business in the next 10 years needs to deal with this. Also, the Race to Zero commitment doesn’t require any money; there is no cost whatsoever. These resources are free to everyone.

There’s a whole new future for the events sector once we have gotten moving on carbon. And there is no choice really, whether we move on or not. We can pretend there is, but there isn’t. If we all made inspiring commitments, there is a new future for our sector, and that could start at the beginning of 2022. 

Is there a magic number of commitments we need to move the needle?

Right now, we have 120 commitments. When we get to 300, businesses and governments will start talking about the events sector and supporting initiatives to make it more sustainable.

Ultimately, will we still be having face-to-face events but do so in a more sustainable way?
Yes. And there’s going to be a time in the future where every supplier to the events supply chain will have a net zero commitment, and that will be the norm because it will be mandated by corporate clients. That time is coming very quickly. We may as well take that step forward and show some leadership.

Another Perspective: Rallying Broad Support 

In the lead-up to COP26, the Joint Meetings Industry Council last week launched Net Zero Carbon Events, an initiative that aims to engage the global events industry in a pledge to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050. To those who consider the 2050 target date a weak commitment, Kai Hattendorf, CEO of UFI, The Global Association of the Exhibition Industry, and a JMIC board member, politely begs to differ. 

“It is a fine line to walk,” he says, explaining that the target represents a critical start. “I sincerely believe that for a whole sector and its business leaders to officially commit to this target lays the foundation that we need to proceed with the work…. It shows an industry rallying behind a cause.” 

Furthermore, he adds, the stated goal is to achieve net zero by 2050 at the latest. “For right now, the intent was to get commitments across the whole sector, and different players and regions are at different stages of their climate journey,” notes Hattendorf. “Some companies are already very well advanced, and they will reach the targets much earlier. And it’s easier to implement green practices in some places than in others. Their solutions and examples will very likely empower others to get to the targets faster.” 

As of Nov. 3, about 200 organizations had signed on to the initiative, Northstar Travel Group among them. The rest of the signatories will be announced next week in Glasgow.

Source: Northstar Meetings Group