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What’s the carbon footprint of your online event?

Online events, hybrid events, live streaming and the impact on carbon emissions

How to make online and hybrid events as sustainable as you can

How sustainable is your online event? Covid has prompted a huge rise in online and hybrid events and, at first glance, these seem much less harmful to the environment than in-person events. However, everything has its environmental cost. A look at the latest numbers and trends show the argument is not as clear cut as might be assumed.

What is live streaming?

According to the International Energy Agency, internet usage rose 40% in the first few months of global Covid-19 lockdowns. Many sectors have benefited from the growth in live streaming as business events moved online.

Thankfully, the technology behind this is nothing new. Over the last 15 years live streaming has become a key tool in allowing delegates to watch conferences remotely on their desktop computers, laptops or mobile devices.

Before we delve into its impacts, what is web streaming and what advantages does it bring event planners?

  • A simple, cost-effective tool for spreading the content of your conference far beyond the walls of your conference room

  • When people cannot meet physically, web streaming enables relationship to flourish and provides collaborative tools to keep your business moving forward

  • It makes your content available for viewing after the live meeting – particularly useful for people who are working from home, home schooling or who otherwise miss the live stream

  • Web streaming your event allows much wider participation from experts who could not access an in-person meeting – e.g. students have seen professors from abroad attending their lectures and seminars creating a much more interesting discussion. Many business people have also attended international business panels widening our frames of reference

What sustainable savings do we get from web streaming?

The main saving comes from the reduction in travel. This has a significant impact on carbon emissions. Obviously, a delegate attending a web conference doesn’t have to travel to a venue, thus reducing their carbon footprint for that meeting.

For example, a return trip for a single passenger flying economy class from London to Paris will emit 196kg, and to New York 1842kg of CO2e.

In the current climate, just imagine how many people are currently not doing their daily commute to and from work, instead holding their meetings online.

For example, removing from the road 50 cars each travelling 10 miles creates a CO2 emissions saving of 200kg.

It also cuts down on catering and refreshments. Although some conferences do send out ‘goody bags’ to their virtual guests, this uses far less energy than installing hospitality outlets at the event, with the consequent energy consumption and waste.

Environmental impact of web streaming

But it’s not all one way; everything we do has an environmental impact. Web streaming is no different. If the global IT sector were a country, its electricity demand is the third largest in the world, behind China and the US.

This is down to the power usage – the data centres driving the back end of streaming platforms, the internet, and user devices to name a few. So many different factors are involved, it is very difficult to gain precise figures to measure the full environmental impact of web streaming.

However, a report from Boston Consulting Group (June 2021) states “the ICT sector is now responsible for 3 to 4% of global CO2 emissions, about twice the level of the much more heavily scrutinised aviation sector. And with global data use estimated to grow 60% this year, the industry could be responsible for up to 14% of global CO2 emissions by 2040.”

Much of the most quoted data on this topic comes from The Shift Project, a French think tank advocating the shift to a post-carbon economy. Before Covid struck, it produced a sobering report on the impact of online video.

As well as its statistics, The Shift Project created three useful tools for events planners.

  1. An educational video – show to your colleagues to raise awareness of the environmental issues surrounding corporate video

  2. A series of tips on how to reduce the environmental impact of your video production

  3. A web add-on to give you an at-a-glance reminder of the carbon impact of your web-browsing

Analysis the organisation carried out in 2018 indicated that online use consumed more energy than the production of the equipment used to make and view the content.

The Shift Project data was quoted in a BBC Future report from March 2020 which claimed,” The carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions, according to some estimates.”

Practical steps to improve online event sustainability

There are many steps we can take to reduce the environmental impact of our events. Here are a few, many of which apply to all aspects of our online working life.

  1. Cut out unnecessary e-mails – including those which simply say ‘thanks’. Every e-mail creates a small carbon cost.

  2. Replace attachments with links to documents – Cloud-based storage systems like OneDrive and Google Drive etc make this much simpler now

  3. Cut out ‘background noise’ of leaving Netflix, YouTube etc on when you aren’t concentrating – for virtual events, this means only taking part in the bits which really interest you and at times when you can engage fully. Log off at other times.

  4. Get back on your laptop - “Using a phone over a mobile network is at least twice as energy intensive than using it over wi-fi, so if you can wait until you get home to watch YouTube that’s best,” Mike Hazas, Lancaster University quoted by the BBC.

  5. Turn your video off – this has a big impact. Although initial advice was always to keep video on for interaction, there are many times during a meeting when participants do not need to see our face. Indeed, many businesses are now encouraging staff to do just that not simply for environmental reasons but to give them mental health breaks and reduce Zoom fatigue

  6. Ensure your event is buying energy from a renewable energy supplier

The picture is cloudy

I started by writing that precise figures are hard to come by.

French researcher George Kamiya has critiqued the Think Project figures to demonstrate that the impact of online video is much less than that predicted by the think tank. His report featured as a guest blog on respected UK website Carbon Brief. Two factors stand out from this:

Even more recently, researchers at MIT have published one of the few studies to consider the extra impact of Covid 19 restrictions. They conclude if remote work continues through the end of 2021, the global carbon footprint could grow by 34.3 million tons in greenhouse gas emissions.

Of course, that does not show what additional GHG emissions would have been caused have those meetings taken place in-person with all the travel that would entail. If you want to see how to cut the impact of your in-person events, download our free Sustainable Events Planning Guide.

Maybe, some of the meetings would not have taken place at all! That meeting which should have been an e-mail which should have been a phone call.

Social Sustainability

Which brings us back to the point of events. They bring people together. Whatever the format, we only hold an event if it is the best way to add value to relationships and understanding. Web streaming is a useful tool, particularly at the moment, but it won’t ever completely negate the need for face to face communication and attending meetings in person.

Human nature means that we have an intrinsic need to connect to other humans – In person. Social Sustainability isn’t often talked about, but the well-being of people and maintaining a healthy community and workplace is vital to team building, learning and innovation.

We’re grateful for remote technology and web streaming, and some of us will be grateful for getting back to our offices too. Nothing beats face to face communication and no technology can replace people being physically present at a conference or event. Only by fully understanding the value we want our event or meeting to have for participants can we then define how to get that impact with the lowest environmental cost.


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