Virtual events and the climate crisis: the go-to solution?

The pandemic demonstrated the global virtual event industry’s impressive ability to flex and evolve in response to an unprecedented period of change. It’s small wonder then that virtual events are no longer viewed as the poorer second cousin to live events, and now form an integral part of any successful marketing strategy.

But beyond the obvious benefits to business ranging from lower operating costs to data capture, virtual events also offer the chance for organisations to play their part in tackling the climate crisis. A recent study described transitioning from in-person to virtual events as an ‘effective climate mitigation strategy’, offering substantial decreases in both event carbon footprint (94%) and energy use (90%).

For organisations increasingly using ESG frameworks as the basis of their decision making, the above figures are hard to ignore.

While it would be easy to then conclude that virtual events don’t need the same level of scrutiny on environmental impact as in-person events, the journey towards net zero demands continuous improvement across all event formats.

Research has shown that over 60% of carbon emissions from larger virtual conferences can be attributed to network data transfers (e.g. downloading data from video calls). And yes this can be offset by adopting carbon-friendly habits such as switching from HD to SD and turning off cameras (reducing carbon footprint by 96%), according to the same study, but at what cost to the virtual-event experience?

Among the drawbacks to virtual events cited by respondents to a recent global survey of event organisers and attendees is the fact they feel: less personal (55%) and materials presented are more difficult to engage with (22%). Both of these may be harmed rather than helped by the above carbon-reduction strategies. In addition, without strong engagement high-level conferences are unlikely to inspire the behaviour change so critical to mobilising climate action.

The good news is that increasingly sophisticated virtual event platforms have risen up to meet some of these challenges. They are working hard to capture and keep the attention of audiences as well as fostering connection utilising everything from gamification for the former to one-to-one networking for the latter.

But it’s clear that there is no one-size-fits-all event format, and depending on event objectives hybrid – such as the forthcoming COP28 – or in-person may still offer a better fit.

So how to reconcile a larger carbon footprint if you do opt for, say, a hybrid event? As well as using tools such as TRACE to help you measure and minimise event carbon emissions, whatever your chosen event format, there are a long list of options to explore to boost your event’s sustainability credentials. 

Read: 6 ways to reduce your event’s carbon footprint

Ultimately, solutions to the climate crisis call for creative thinking, and this is something the events industry has in spades.

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