The road to COP26: Has the industry finally woken up?

The road to COP26: Has the industry finally woken up?

In the lead up to United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), 31 October-12 November 2021, Oliver Thomas asked whether the industry had woken up to the impending dangers of global climate change?

In 2015, COP21 was the conference where the momentous Paris Climate Agreement was signed, dedicating the international community to keep global average temperatures well below a two-degree increase.

That conference highlighted the apocalyptic consequences that the world was destined for if action wasn’t taken. While the agreement was a step in the right direction, the reaction from governments and businesses alike were generally tame, and in some cases apathetic.

However, six years later, the magic word that is on the tip of everybody’s tongue is ‘sustainability’. So, perhaps this time it could be different?

After 19 months of the Covid-19 pandemic the meetings industry is beginning to look to the future again. As the sector starts to back away from the precipice, a period of rapid growth has enabled many organisations to challenge themselves to ‘build back better’. At the centre of this has been event technology, the creation of more diverse workforces and sustainability being put at the forefront of business strategies, with many new ideas and solutions being debated and introduced throughout the sector.

Kathleen Warden, director of conference sales at the Scottish Event Campus (SEC), the host venue of COP26, says Paris COP21 set the destination for us all and now, “Glasgow must make it a reality”.

Warden adds: “It is widely recognised in the conference and convention industry that the legacy of conferences and the impact that they have on positive change is what makes them so important. For example, conferences in the field of oncology are ultimately aiming to improve the survival rates of people living with cancer.  The same goes for COP, its purpose is to ensure a better outcome for our planet and all that inhabit it.”

Burden of responsibility

So how can our industry move towards creating better outcomes for our planet? In the Panoptic Events report ‘Sustainability at Events’ an emphasis was placed on how the burden of responsibility for change must fall equally among all stakeholders in the sector. Currently in the events industry 85% of attendee waste goes to landfill. Whose fault is this? Event organisers? Venues? Attendees? Instead of pointing fingers, strong leadership is the critical glue to ensuring that effective cross sector responsibility is divided up.

In the lead up to COP26, an industry wide pledge, the ‘Net Zero Carbon Events Initiative’, was launched by some of the sector’s leading associations. The International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA), the International Association of Convention Centres (AIPC), and the Global Association of the Exhibition Industry (UFI) orchestrated a pledge, under umbrella organisation Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC), designed to galvanise the industry towards tackling climate change and reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Some of the key points include developing common methodologies to measure supply chain greenhouse gas emissions, collaboration with suppliers and customers to ensure sustainable alignment, and establishing common mechanisms for reporting progress and sharing best practice.

Special role

James Rees, president of JMIC, in urging the industry to join the collaborative effort to drive the events sector towards net zero and sign the pledge, has said: “Events drive industries and societies. They shape conversations, foster innovation and generate business. They are key to human collaboration. This holds true for every subject, including sustainability and climate change. The events industry has a special role to play in tackling climate change. We provide the meeting places and marketplaces to work on solutions to the climate crisis. At the same time, we have a responsibility to minimise our impact on climate change.”

The issue, of course, is becoming a critical one in our neighbouring sectors. Presently, the travel and tourism industry is responsible for 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has also pledged its commitment to help bring together that sector to tackle climate change. The WTTC announced, 23 September, the

launch of a Net Zero Roadmap, which included a status quo overview of climate actions, a review of the direct lessons learned from the past 18 months, and action frameworks for specific industries to help accelerate climate commitments and emissions reduction. The creation of environmental research within this plan aims to supply the entire industry with data to measure its carbon footprint and enact change.

Julia Simpson, president and CEO of WTTC, said: “The launch of our Net Zero Roadmap and development of sector wide data to measure our success are major steps to show how travel and tourism is playing its part in addressing climate change.” WTTC will launch its Net Zero Roadmap for the travel and tourism sector at COP26 in Glasgow.

This leadership from the meetings industry, and other neighbouring sectors, aims to assist and put pressure on stakeholders across the sector to adapt their operations or be left behind. With associations committing their name to such pledges, organisations will be compelled to make changes within their own operations.

Organisations’ sustainability strategies are becoming ever more stringent, and business deals have become increasingly contingent on their partners and suppliers doing the same. At International Confex, 1-2 September, Glenn Mainwaring, business development professional at the Barbican Centre, said his venue’s sustainability policy was truly a sales tool.  He noted that the Barbican Centre’s green strategy not only attracted business for the venue, but also blocked deals being made with partner organisations who do not have appropriate sustainability protocols in place. Therefore, as we go further down this road, comprehensive sustainability strategies are no longer just ethically appropriate, but economically imperative.

Followers or leaders?

However, for some, the JMIC pledge has not gone far enough to lead the industry towards a sustainable carbon neutral future. Fiona Pelham, CEO of Positive Impact, a non-profit which aims to drive sustainable education, engagement, and collaboration within the event sector, challenges the current state of the industry’s sustainable leadership.

When asked by CMW about what stage the events industry is at in its road to tackling climate change, Pelham said: “Our progress so far is not enough. There is the potential for a new narrative on the impact of events in the world… however before any new narrative is possible, we have to address, without greenwash, the carbon impact our sector has.”

Pelham commented: “The JMIC pledge says it will ‘drive towards net zero by 2050’ which will be a move backwards for a growing number of (organisations) within the sector. The cross-sector engagement for what JMIC have put forward has been weak (the initiative is only supported by some of the many event associations), and the sector should see it as a danger that a few companies have shaped something that claims to represent the entire industry.”

When asked about COP26, Pelham concluded: “COP26 is an opportunity for the event sector to be recognised as a sector taking action in line with UN programmes. After COP26, the majority of businesses and governments will have carbon commitments, so COP26 signals the start of the ‘followers’ rather than the leaders.”

Pelham asks CMW readers: “Will the event sector be a follower, with minimal commitment decided by a select group of companies, or a leader with transparent measurement, reporting, and inclusive engagement?”

The industry is at a crossroads. A period of adjustments, planning, discussions, and pledges have commenced. While these actions alone will not make our industry a ‘leader’, it is a necessary step in the right direction. COP26 is a critical opportunity not just in the meetings industry but for our global community to understand the immediacy of the threat and the necessary wide ranging structural changes that need to be made, now.

Discussion and debate are important, but it’s time for our industry to go beyond rhetoric and convert this into tangible results. Therefore, to truly argue that the industry has woken up to the impending dangers of climate change, real actions must be seen, not just heard.

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