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Can you make your event carbon neutral?

Topic: Insight, Sustainability /

The events industry has not historically been known for its green credentials. Live events involve lots of travel (often international), transporting of goods, and consumption (and waste) of food, gas and electricity. All told, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions produced by events have not exactly been something to celebrate. Until now.

With live event companies eager to build sustainability into their strategies, the industry is entering a new era of eco-awareness. From saying no to single use cups to using renewable energy sources, there are plenty of ways in which events are reducing their overall carbon footprint. But what about becoming carbon neutral?

While many events measure their GHG emissions as an indicator of sustainability, some go a step further and aim for carbon neutrality: zero carbon footprint. Sound too good to be true? Let’s find out whether or not it’s possible to make your event carbon neutral…

What does carbon neutral mean?

Carbon neutral means there’s no net release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This is usually achieved through carbon offsetting. 

After measuring the carbon footprint of an event, organisers can take steps to reduce their emissions where possible, then offset any remaining emissions by investing in carbon offsetting projects which help to reduce CO2 emissions in a variety of industries. Simple, right?

While many events claim to be carbon neutral, differing methodologies and opinions on what should be measured means there’s actually a lot more controversy around carbon neutrality than meets the eye. 

At one end of the spectrum are events that only measure their electricity use. At the other end there are those that forensically examine the embedded (lifecycle) emissions in the food they serve. Then, there’s everything in between.

Without a clearly defined, industry-wide accepted scope for what should be included, the term ‘carbon neutral’ can easily be misused, abused or misinterpreted as a greenwashing PR tactic. In order to achieve true carbon neutrality, events organisers need to measure the appropriate indicators and, importantly, be fully transparent about what those indicators are.

Preparation: carbon audit

As with any aspect of business, if you want to change or improve something, you need to know where you currently stand. When it comes to achieving carbon neutrality, the first step has to be a carbon audit. So what exactly do you measure?

Although there are no fixed industry-wide rules or governing bodies for GHG emissions at events, there is guidance on protocols and methodologies to follow. Organisations like ISO 14064 (international), PAS 2060 (UK) and The National Carbon Offset Standard (Australia) all offer principles to follow when carrying out a carbon audit. We’re happy to say we have achieved ISO14001 for our environmental management, but know there is plenty more work to be done.

While many carbon offsetting companies offer online calculators which give you a figure for your carbon footprint in seconds, they’re rarely accurate, so it’s best to avoid these and instead follow the guidance set out by PAS 2060 and the GHG Protocol.

The GHG Protocol divides emissions into three scopes. Scope 1 includes direct ‘on-site’ emissions such as fuel consumption and waste; scope 2 covers indirect emissions such as heating for indoor venues and electricity, and scope 3 covers indirect emissions which happen because of the event but not on-site, such as attendee travel, overnight accommodation and the wider supply chain.

It’s easy to see how a carbon audit can be open to interpretation. Although you could measure every last element, this would be highly impractical or, in some cases, impossible. The line from PAS 2060 is that anything which is predicted to be more than 5% of all GHG emissions should be included. For most events, this will be electricity (direct and indirect), travel and transport.

The key to carrying out a successful carbon audit is to focus on the most relevant areas for GHG emissions. Trying to measure everything your event touches is neither practical nor beneficial. By the same token, just looking at one factor is likely to mean your claims of carbon neutrality are (unwittingly) bogus.

In 2015, Siemens announced plans to reduce their carbon footprint by 50% by 2020 and become carbon neutral by 2030. To do this, they measured three main areas: facilities, vehicles and energy. Of course, each of these factors will be broken down into a number of sub categories, but focussing on three main areas has allowed Siemens to measure their CO2 emissions in detail - within certain parameters. 

Through fixing the scope of what’s included and focussing their efforts on specific initiatives and operational changes, so far Siemens has managed to reduce carbon emissions by 33%. If events want to achieve carbon neutrality, they need to adopt the same approach. Once you’ve measured your carbon footprint within set parameters, you can begin to take practical steps to reduce your emissions.

Talk to suppliers

In order to reduce your carbon footprint, you will certainly need to look at some parts of your supply chain. If the suppliers you work with are not committed to the same goals or are unable to adopt more environmentally friendly ways of working, it might be time to look for alternatives.

These days, there are plenty of suppliers in every industry who are dedicated to improving sustainability and reducing emissions. So if you shop around, you’re sure to find the right fit.

Talk to attendees

If you’re aiming for carbon neutrality, people want to hear about it. To reach your objective, you need everyone from your staff to your attendees on board and committed to the cause. So tell them. If you want people to recycle and to understand why there are no single use cups, they need to know why. It’s also not bad for PR.

Being transparent about what your current emissions are and how you plan to reach carbon neutrality is crucial to your cause. Communicating this will serve to make your attendees more aware of their consumption and how to manage waste. Put it on your website and include it on your app. You could even offer a discount or reward for attendees who use public transport to get to the event.

Execution

Renewable energy

There are numerous sources of renewable energy these days. But for events, it’s not as simple as switching your supplier. Most events occupy spaces which are owned by other organisations. However, there are many events spaces which are now powered by sustainable energy sources, such as Cavendish in London or CAT in Mid Wales.

Cavendish’s commitment to offering the ‘greenest venues in London’ means everything from their energy sources and zero landfill policy to their localised supply base supports sustainability. 

As a company whose very existence is based on achieving carbon neutrality, CAT’s event spaces are built from sustainable materials. The energy sources are also renewable (as you’d expect), and they even run courses to help individuals and organisations achieve carbon neutrality.

Of course, there are limitations for events, such as needing a certain location or venue size. But as direct electricity use is often one of the primary contributors to an event’s carbon footprint, using renewable energy is crucial if your aim is to be carbon neutral. If you’ve rejected a space because of their energy source, tell them. This may encourage them to switch their supplier.

Food waste

Food waste at events is an inevitability. No matter how carefully you calculate the amount of food required, you can never get it exactly right. However, you can reduce your carbon footprint by choosing what you do with leftover food. 

Launched in 2015, OLIO tackles the issue of food waste head-on with a simple solution. If you have spare food, you post a description on the app. If someone wants it, the food is then collected and delivered to them. The app, which currently has over a million subscribers, solves the problem of how to connect leftover food with the people who need it.

Another solution, designed to manage and optimise meals at large events, is GrubStub. Effectively, GrubStub digitises all the meals needed for an individual on one ticket which they scan to receive their food. The benefits of this system are numerous, as MD, Lou Fitzpatrick explains: ‘If they have 20,000 meals to serve at an event, management don’t have to spend days and days counting out tickets, and they get a lot more tracking, a lot more information which in turn helps to streamline budgets, identify wastage and identify overspend.’

Zero landfill

The most easy and obvious first step for producing zero landfill waste is to make it easy for attendees to put their rubbish in the correct bins. Placing bins everywhere, clearly labelling them and using signs which direct people to where they can dispose of things is crucial. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you rely on.

Ensuring your suppliers use compostable or recyclable packaging where possible is vital if you’re working towards zero landfill and carbon neutrality. If you are committed to eliminating single use plastic, there’s no point working with a supplier who isn’t - so make sure you check.

Companies like Cwm Harry work with clients including the Hay Festival and Ludlow Food Festival to help them reduce their landfill waste. They ensure everything goes to the right place by hand-sorting all recycling.

Carbon offsetting

When it comes to travel, especially flights, there’s not much you can do to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, the focus needs to be on carbon offsetting. Many airlines used to offer this as an option for customers on board their flights - you could choose to contribute a small amount of money to a carbon offsetting project.

Now, a number of airlines automatically contribute to carbon offsetting projects when you fly with them. By 2021, all airlines which fly internationally will be obliged to do the same and offset any extra emissions under the UN’s “Corsia” agreement (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation).

Encouraging attendees to use airlines which offset their footprint will help to get you closer to your objective of being carbon neutral. Do your research to find the best airlines from various geographical locations and post this information on your app or website. You could even offer an incentive for booking with one of your recommended airlines.

In terms of offsetting emissions from other areas of your event, organisations like Carbonfund.org can help you find the most appropriate projects to invest in. Both for cohesion and practicality, it makes sense to choose projects which are connected to your GHG emissions. For example, you could invest in an energy efficiency project to offset transport use. These projects look at how technology or better practice can produce the same outcome using less energy.

The question of whether or not you can make your event truly carbon neutral is a complex one. The best answer is that it really depends. Your scope needs to be broader than just electricity or transport, but not so broad that it becomes untenable and impossible to accurately measure. One thing which is clear is that if you say you’re carbon neutral, simply offsetting is not going to wash - you need to prove that you’ve actively reduced GHG emissions in all the relevant areas and offset any which are unavoidable. A crucial part of being carbon neutral is being transparent and open to scrutiny - for that you need facts, figures and to be able to show exactly how you’ve achieved a carbon neutral event.

Need some inspiration for your next event? Check out some of our best work.

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