Cover Story

Meetings and Climate Change

On the heels of the U.N.’s historic climate conference in Paris in December, will there be increased pressure to reduce the carbon emissions of meetings, conventions, and trade shows?

Illustration by Michael Waraksa
Illustration by Michael Waraksa

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference ended with the bang of a gavel and the eruption of cheers after 195 nations — virtually every country in the world — agreed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions in an unprecedented effort to avert the most drastic effects of global warming.

Score one for the power of face-to-face meetings.

On the other hand, here’s a headline from Wired magazine’s website as the conference was still going on: “The Paris Climate Talks Will Emit 300,000 Tons of CO2, by Our Math. Hope It’s Worth It.” As author Nick Stockton noted, an estimated 50,000 people went to Paris for the climate talks, the vast majority traveling long distances by air, thus contributing enormously to the event’s carbon footprint. Comments to the article included this one: “Haven’t these people heard of Skype or teleconferencing? I’ll start acting like it’s a [climate] emergency when they do.”

So, minus one for the costly environmental impacts of face-to-face events — although it must be noted that the U.N. implemented a comprehensive plan to mitigate those effects for the conference’s 22,000 official attendees.

It’s hard to get a fix on something you are not measuring.

Still, as governments, businesses, and other organizations around the globe ramp up efforts to slash greenhouse-gas emissions, how will meeting professionals balance the value of conferences and trade shows as drivers of global information exchange, business development, and economic impact with the inherent high-carbon intensity of bringing together large numbers of people in one place? Will mounting concerns about global warming catalyze change within the events industry?


Meetings business packs a big economic wallop. The landmark Economic Significance of Meetings to the U.S. Economy, a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Convention Industry Council, estimated that 1.8 million meetings, trade shows, and conventions are held annually in the United States alone, driving $770 billion in spending. But the collective environmental impact of those meetings, let alone all the events held in the rest of the world, is unknown. One big reason is that — despite great strides in the adoption of sustainable event practices in the last decade and the introduction of APEX/ASTM Sustainable Meeting Standards — relatively few event organizers track their programs’ environmental footprint.

Nancy_Zavada“It’s hard to get a fix on something you are not measuring,” said Nancy J. Zavada, CMP, founder and president of MeetGreen, a leading sustainable-events consultancy and event-management company. MeetGreen offers event statistics based on footprint data collected for more than 60 client events since 2007: The typical conference attendee produces more than four pounds of waste and nearly 400 pounds of CO2 emissions a day; 41 percent of waste generated at a typical “mid-size corporate trade show” ends up in a landfill; and so on.

Between overly generous F&B estimates, ubiquitous printed materials, bags full of swag, and scratch-built show floors, meetings have always had wasteful tendencies. MeetGreen stats show that’s still a big issue, especially at trade shows, and that the average three-day, 1,000-person national conference generates about 584 tons of planet-warming CO2 emissions. (For a visual on what a ton of CO2 looks like, imagine one fully inflated hot air balloon.) Of those 584 tons, 70 percent come from attendee air travel.

The climate impact of air-transport emissions is something the aviation industry is wrestling with. The International Air Transport Association reports that about 2 percent of man-made carbon emissions worldwide come from air transport, and that percentage is expected to increase rapidly along with the growth of international air transportation. A global deal among airlines on limiting aviation carbon emissions is expected this year; among other measures, it would establish a marketplace for airlines to reduce emissions by buying carbon offsets.

The average three-day, 1,000-person national conference generates about 584 tons of planet-warming CO2 emissions.

Carbon offsets, or allowances, are one way to neutralize emissions, and they are a growing, relatively inexpensive option for a variety of industries, including events. But there are caveats and challenges to using them. “Reducing emissions that we can avoid is an important precursor to offsetting,” said Shawna McKinley, MeetGreen’s director of sustainability. “Acting by only offsetting creates the perception of greenwashing your event, by overlooking things you can act to reduce. So reducing emissions is always the first step.”

One way to radically reduce air-travel emissions is to use virtual or hybrid meetings, as a way of encouraging remote attendance. These models are gaining traction but are far from the norm — and perhaps never will be. As a result, Zavada calls attendee air-travel emissions the “elephant in the ballroom.” She is quick to emphasize that face-to-face meetings are critical to advancing knowledge and moving the global economy forward, “but if you are holding a meeting for education that people can easily get online, or for some other reason that doesn’t necessitate person-to-person interaction,” she said, “then you’ve got to ask, are low-carbon options like hybrid or virtual conferences a better choice?”


CES — formerly the Consumer Electronics Show — is the largest annual trade show in North America, drawing more than 150,000 attendees annually to Las Vegas from around the globe. In 2008, the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which owns and produces CES, partnered with to offset the show’s on-site CO2 emissions — generated by shuttle buses, freight, attendees’ guest rooms, exhibit halls, and so on. Emissions totaled 22,000 tons, which CTA offset by purchasing more than $110,000 in renewable-energy, reforestation, and energy-efficiency investments. CTA didn’t offset attendees’ air travel, but included information on the CES website about how they could do that on their own.

Laurie_LutzSince then, CES has shifted its green strategy and no longer buys carbon offsets, focusing instead on waste reduction and also directing funding to local green initiatives, according to Laurie Lutz, vice president of CES operations for CTA. “Our intention is to make a very tangible and immediate local impact,” Lutz said, “to work with our Las Vegas partners and to give back to the Las Vegas community directly.”

At CES 2015, general contractor Freeman recycled a half-million square feet of carpet — up 70 percent from the previous year — and reused the remaining 1.13 million square feet. Fifteen trailers of donated items were collected for Habitat for Humanity and other organizations. And CES gave a check for $65,000 to Green Our Planet, to support 14 outdoor garden classrooms around Las Vegas, as well as $35,000 in grants to two other local groups involved in green initiatives.

That’s one way to do it. Oracle takes a different approach with its annual OpenWorld show, which brings together 50,000 participants from more than 140 countries in the San Francisco Bay Area. Billing itself as “the world’s most sustainable conference,” OpenWorld has a comprehensive event-sustainability strategy, with targeted goals for reducing its carbon footprint that have been measured every year since 2009 through an independent audit by MeetGreen. Those audits show that OpenWorld has reduced on-site carbon emissions per participant/per day by 40 percent between 2011 and 2014.

Paul_SalingerBeyond that, Oracle offsets 100 percent of its on-site emissions, which totaled 976 tons in 2014. Attendees can voluntarily offset their travel emissions by paying a small fee with their registration. In 2014, 13 percent of attendees opted to offset their air travel. Would OpenWorld consider folding the cost of offsetting attendee air-travel emissions into the registration fee? “This is definitely something we have talked about internally and for which I have advocated for a few years now,” said Paul Salinger, Oracle’s vice president of marketing. “It’s not that we don’t want to do it this way, it has to do with the way we do accounting of revenue and costs for the event. We’re not allowed to build a cost into our revenue stream in this way. For now, we will need to continue with our current voluntary opt-out model.”

One organization that is folding offset costs for attendee travel directly into its meeting registration fee is the Unitarian Universalists Association (UUA), which has been a leader in event sustainability for more than a decade, winning the IMEX/Green Meeting Industry Council’s 2008 Green Meetings Silver Award, among other accolades. UUA’s 2015 General Assembly, held in Portland, Oregon, and drawing 4,700 attendees, marked the first time the organization offset 100 percent of the emissions associated with the meeting.

Historically, the General Assembly has required that hotels and venues offset their carbon emissions, while the largest contributor — attendee travel — has been offset voluntarily. But for 2015, UUA worked with to calculate and offset emissions from air, ground, and freight travel, then added the offset cost per attendee into the registration fee. UUA subsequently bought $20,000 in carbon offsets, choosing to support the Truck Stop Electrification Project, which provides electricity to truckers during their rest periods, to reduce tailpipe emissions while they idle. “What is really amazing is how little it cost us to offset emissions from attendee travel — less than $5 per attendee,” said Janiece Sneegas, UUA’s director of General Assembly and conference services. “Talk about bang for your buck.”

In 2014, 13 percent of attendees opted to offset their air travel.

The cost of offsets may be an option for sponsorships, according to MeetGreen’s McKinley, who speculated on the collective impact the industry could have. “If we [event organizers] contributed an average of $10 per attendee, which is the typical cost to offset participation at a national convention, we could see $2.2 billion invested in clean and renewable energy in the U.S.,” she said. “The amount of carbon offset by that kind of financial support equates to 619,000 wind turbines, replacing 5.2 billion barrels of oil. That’s not a small contribution to a more sustainable future for all.”


Will the new U.N. climate-change accord, which has galvanized governments around the world to aggressive action to cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions, spur efforts at and around meetings and events? The Green Meeting Industry Council is optimistic. So is the Convention Industry Council (CIC) — about both what’s been accomplished and what’s to come. “CIC has been proud to play a role in the development of the first prescriptive sustainability standards for meetings designed to give planners and suppliers a playbook by which they can reduce the environmental impacts,” said CEO Karen Kotowski, CAE, CMP. “CIC has committed to stay involved in the future development of the APEX/ASTM Sustainable Meetings Standards, and we will continue to harness the power of the organization to help the cause for global change.”

I think we can build a lot of collaborative effort based on the CSR model that has taken off in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds.

But not everyone is so sure. “The industry has traditionally been slow to recognize and act on these kinds of things,” Oracle’s Salinger said. “The biggest problem is that there is no agreed-upon measuring and reporting mechanism that is used by the industry as a whole, which would allow us to even know what the overall baselines are for carbon, waste, water, energy, or any other resource. Nor is there any pressure to obtain this information and share it broadly.” He added that for the events industry to work collectively to reduce its own carbon footprint “will require a real recognition that meetings not only have an impact economically, they also have an impact on the environment and in the communities where we hold our events, and there must be a collective imperative to solve that side of the equation as well.”

UUA’s Sneegas thinks that fighting climate change could become part of the industry’s CSR profile. “Why not start with a registry of good works,” she said, “where groups can show what they are doing as part of their meeting to advance social good, whether it’s donating food or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or offsetting their event’s carbon footprint? I think we can build a lot of collaborative effort based on the CSR model that has taken off in both the corporate and nonprofit worlds.”

Shawna_McKinleyMeetGreen’s McKinley suggests a pragmatic approach. “I’d like to encourage every event owner to start just by finding out what your carbon impact is,” she said. “Do a baseline measurement. Once you know your sources of emissions, then you can assess the feasibility of acting on your significant emissions sources — and not just the little things.”

But while reducing emissions is easily possible, it’s not always attractive. “We don’t always want to go virtual, or meet in the closest city or the region that uses more renewable energy, or cut beef from the event menu,” McKinley said. “Or pay for a quality offset that makes cleaner energy more viable when we can’t reduce. But that is what more event professionals have to do to make a meaningful difference to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. I hope we can get there, and pull our weight. And it can’t happen without measurement and setting collective goals.”

Carbon Offsets 101

Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere, driving global warming. A carbon offset is a reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions to compensate for an emission made elsewhere. When you buy an offset, you fund projects that reduce emissions by methods such as restoring forests, updating power plants and factories, or supporting renewable energy. You can pick offset investments that fund projects as diverse as providing clean cook stoves in developing countries and reducing methane emissions from local farms.

Carbon offsetting is a growing trend. Companies, governments, and individuals voluntarily spent just under $4.5 billion over the last decade to purchase nearly a billion carbon offsets, according to Ecosystem Marketplace. But offsetting isn’t a panacea for global warming. For one thing, there are already enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to drive significant climate impacts. Further, organizations that use carbon offsets without taking meaningful steps to reduce their emissions are open to the charge of greenwashing and the backlash that can come with it.

What are the hallmarks of a quality carbon-offset investment? According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the most important criteria are making sure that the reduction wouldn’t have occurred in the regular course of business operations without the help of the offset investment, that the amount of reduction is measurable and verifiable, that the savings are permanent and not likely to be reversed, and that legal recourse can be taken if the offset provider fails to see the project through to completion.

Carbon-offset brokers, such as and TerraPass, can help take the work out of finding quality offset projects by providing a portfolio of vetted options. TerraPass also offers a free carbon calculator that includes a section for tracking the carbon footprint of events. The calculator is a valuable tool for meeting planners not only to measure their events’ footprint but to see where cost savings can be made, according to Nancy Bsales, TerraPass’ manager of carbon solutions. “Energy is money,” Bsales said, “and if you can see that you are, for example, spending a lot of money on water usage or electricity at one meeting and not another, you can make more informed decisions about how to make reductions.”

‘A Truly Global Agreement’

Roger Simon, CMP, is group sustainability manager for MCI Group and board president of the Green Meeting Industry Council (GMIC). We talked to him about GMIC’s perspective on climate change and meetings.

The U.N. climate conference this past December was the first time that nearly every nation on Earth agreed to cut emissions. Will this agreement likely have any impact on GMIC and its future goals? 

We’re elated that the 2015 climate conference managed to progress where previous ones had failed, reaching a truly global agreement. As with any agreement, actions are what matter, and we hope to see governments rally around their targets and drive real change across industries and nations.

For GMIC, it further validates the advocacy we’ve been conducting over the last 13 years. Our industry doesn’t have to scramble to find ways to reduce its environmental impact — GMIC has led the development of the resources and tools to do this for more than a decade.

» Read about the recent merger of the Green Meeting Industry Council and the Convention Industry Council.

Is there a collective role for the meetings industry to play in responding to climate change?

The collective role of the industry is to face the gamut of sustainability issues, with carbon impact being just one of them. We ignore other major environmental impacts of the events industry at our peril.

Waste is a huge issue. Think of all the plastic bottles of water a trade show of three days with 20,000 participants might produce. A veritable mountain of plastic! Not to mention the staggering amount of food waste the industry produces, which likely would feed the world’s malnourished many times over. We must address the issue of environmental impact in its entirety if we are going to be taken seriously as addressing the sustainability of our industry.

Air travel accounts for 70 percent or more of the event emissions for a typical national conference or trade show. Should GMIC have a role in advocating carbon offsets for transportation-related emissions?

Offsets are an interesting subject and they have a role to play, but they should never be the first point of embarkation for an event organizer. We aren’t going to fix the world’s biggest climate challenges through offsetting alone. It doesn’t address the root cause of emissions.

Organizers need to first measure and evaluate the total impact of their events, and then try and reduce that impact. So, less food waste, less packaging, less one-time-use-only signage and booths, shared transport rather than one person per vehicle, and so on across the whole supply chain. Once organizers have done all they can to create smarter, more efficient events, that reduced energy footprint can then be offset.

Roger_SimonA relatively small number of companies in the United States measure their overall carbon emissions, including any emissions associated with business travel or company events. Do you think this will change? 

Many corporations are not yet at the stage of measuring their business-travel or event emissions. I see this as a matter of maturity. Businesses first address the environmental impact of the manufacturing and retailing of their products, then those of their corporate operations. It’s after that we start to see brands looking at a broader supply-chain carbon footprint. So it’s a process that might take a company a decade or more before they’re in a position to start analyzing and reducing what’s called Scope 3 emissions. These are types of indirect emissions including business travel, which events would fall into.

What’s interesting for our industry is the changing winds from investors. It’s becoming a mandatory requirement for many stock-exchange-listed companies to issue a sustainability report, detailing their environmental and social impact alongside the more common financial metrics. This is happening not only in Europe, but also in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. It’s a matter of when, not if, corporations will be required to communicate their environmental impact, including that of their events.

Business Gets Behind the Other Green

Unlike at previous U.N. climate conferences, Big Business played a highly visible and instrumental role at the Paris climate talks. One example: Microsoft founder Bill Gates sank $1 billion into a new public/private green-energy innovation fund launched at the conference, saying that the world needed an “energy miracle” to push back against climate change.

And the momentum from business continues. As of early January 2016, more than 150 companies — from MGM Resorts and Disney to Walmart, McDonald’s, Unilever, and IBM — have signed on to the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, launched by the White House in the months preceding the climate conference. Signers have pledged ambitious, company-specific goals that range from investing millions in renewable energies to reducing operational carbon emissions and building sustainable supply-chain partnerships. Some companies’ goals include reducing and offsetting business travel.

Cisco, for example, has pledged to curb total business-air-travel emissions worldwide by 40 percent by 2017 compared to its 2007 baseline. Goldman Sachs and Microsoft have also pledged carbon neutrality in their operations and business travel.

polar-bearMeanwhile, recognizing the need to address carbon emissions from air travel, some airlines in recent years have offered carbon-offset programs for individual passengers, although it’s not clear how many people are buying them. This past July, United Airlines launched the Eco-Skies CarbonChoice Program for corporate clients — the only U.S. airline to offer such a program, according to a United statement. Participating customers receive customized, enterprise-level carbon-emissions reports that are based on actual flight data, and they can purchase carbon offsets to neutralize emissions on cargo shipments and business travel booked on the airline.

Wyndham Worldwide, one of the world’s largest hotel companies, was one of United’s corporate launch partners. “This move is totally in line with our corporate sustainability objectives and what we’ve done with car rental,” said Joanne McNellis Coelho, Wyndham’s senior manager of global travel, and chair of the Global Business Travel Association’s Sustainability Committee. “Honestly, this was one of the easiest, most rewarding things I’ve done in my career.”

Test Time

Earn one hour of CEU credit. Once you finish reading this CMP Series article, read the following material:

Oracle OpenWorld Event Sustainability Report.

PEX/ASTM Environmentally Sustainable Meeting Standards.

To earn CEU credit, visit to answer questions about information contained in this CMP Series article and the additional material.

The Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) is a registered trademark of the Convention Industry Council.

Regina McGee

Convene Contributing Editor Regina McGee is a writer and editor based in Massachusetts.