We love in person events. But their environmental impact is substantial. And the heaviest pollution comes from the transport we all use to reach the venue and get away again.
So, if we want to meet together in person, we need to reduce dramatically the impact of our travel. Let’s crunch some numbers to put this into context.
A firm which puts on virtual events ran a literature review into the environmental impact of online and in-person events. They found a life cycle analysis from Neugebauer et al. (2020) which claimed a three-day conference with 800 attendees has a carbon footprint of 455 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2 -eq), corresponding to an average of 0.57 tonnes CO2 -eq per participant. Travel to events apparently accounts for 82% of these emissions or 0.47 tonnes CO2 -eq per attendee.
One issue is that, until now, the venues have been agnostic about travel to events. The NEC for example is typical in listing how easy it is to get to the venue whichever mode of transport you choose. No lead from that quarter. Which is a shame because, with 2.3 million guests a year, they could be a big influencer.
That’s not to say the industry is not making small steps. Like many venues, the NEC has installed electric charging points. Even temporary venues have no excuse these days, as mobile EV charging points can be hired when you need them. But progress is slow (like the chargers) – 22 EV points at a venue with 16,500 car parking spaces won’t persuade any environmentalist to put the flags out.
Even when you have parked your electric vehicle, chances are you will hop on a Park and Ride bus which will whisk you to the entrance in a haze of diesel fumes. Replacing these with an electric fleet of buses or minibuses is a no-brainer.
A report into the ‘economics of bus drivelines’ compiled for the Department for Transport indicated that electric drive-lines are typically five times as efficient as diesel drivelines in terms of energy usage. A similar reduction in carbon emissions is attainable if electricity is produced from renewable energy sources.
Is public transport always the answer?
Surely, you cry, the answer is to avoid private transport and use public transport instead? After all, most big conference and exhibition venues are in urban centres or have large interchanges nearby, so why don’t more people opt to arrive on train or bus?
Have you seen the size of some shows’ goody bags? You’d never get home on a bus with those!
More seriously, Covid hesitation is still holding public transport back. Trade magazine, Conference News reported recently that, while people are now more confident about attending live events, many are prepared to pay more for private transport to that event rather than use public transport.
It has always been difficult to persuade sufficient numbers to switch. In 2018, 808 billion passenger kilometres were travelled in Great Britain, with 83% of passenger kilometres made by cars, vans and taxis.
Even if people do want to make the switch, the infrastructure is not always strong enough to cater for increased demand. Manchester mayor Andy Burnham is not the only civic leader calling for greater investment in public transport.
The jury is also out on whether trains are necessarily better for the environment than a modern car. If you are using an old diesel train and you have the option of an electric or even an efficient hybrid car, then the train might not be as environmentally healthy.
But the train is running anyway, so your adding to its passenger list is not going to increase its impact significantly, whereas adding your car to the motorway network certainly will have a noticeable effect.
The good news is that the government has committed to more investment to decarbonise transport as the UK drives towards net zero. In the meantime, it is clear that the main influence will be the transport choices of individual events visitors and exhibitors. Ultimately, the environmental impact of travel to events is little more than the sum of the environmental impacts of every one of us taking part.