First published on Pro Bono News.
Let’s start with some sobering headlines recently:
- Humanity ‘going in the wrong direction’ on climate change, UN warns.
- 8 out of 10 at risk of modern slavery with approximately 50 million — mostly women, children, and migrants — still trapped in forced labour and marriages.
- According to the WHO, 93 per cent of children are living in areas with unsafe levels of air pollution.
While the world is trending in the wrong direction environmentally and socially, there has never been more sustainability and ESG conferences than there are today. If this is the case, what impact are these conferences actually having?
Did you know, in 2017, more than 1.5 billion participants—from about 180 countries—travelled to attend conferences. The number of regular, international convention events—of more than 50 people—doubles every 10 years, and the convention industry’s market size is expected to grow at a 11.2% rate over the next decade.
Are these conferences mainly used as an opportunity for people in power to get attention? Aren’t these conferences meant to change the whole system one step at a time? Is the expiry date on ESG and sustainability conferences’ usefulness limited? Are we discussing issues and topics that were being discussed 10, 20, 30 years ago with little no progress since then? Don’t we (as speakers and participants) think about the ‘why’ more closely when choosing to speak, or even attend, a sustainability conference?
While in their speeches, speakers stress the importance of sustainable development, in the ‘collaboration rooms’, stakeholders would rather protect their own interests. Furthermore, with so many meetings and side events, there is little time to absorb and learn from the new and innovative ideas presented.
While it’s true that conferences and trade shows can provide learning opportunities and in person interactions with potential future contacts, they also carry big carbon footprints.
The growth leads to substantial greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon footprint per individual participant reaches up to 6,600 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent, as reported by life cycle assessment studies.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has, unexpectedly, shown humanity a new way to reduce climate change: scrap in-person meetings and conventions.
Moving a professional conference completely online reduces its carbon footprint by 94 per cent, and shifting it to a hybrid model, with no more than half of conventioneers online, curtails the footprint to 67 per cent, according to a Cornell University-led study in Nature Communication.
Yes, there is nothing like walking into a conference where we have people frantically “collaborating” on outcomes addressing economic and social development and the environment, corridors resembling a giant trade show or carnival, thousands of people networking and advocating for their ‘cause’, businesses showcasing sustainable technologies…and the list goes on. There is definitely electricity in the air as thousands unite to solidify aspirations for a better world.
I ask this question; have these conferences meaningfully advanced sustainable development? Just how effective are such large, high-profile events? Conferences can capture the attention of the media and politicians and potentially secure political agreement on future priorities.
Do they catalyse the necessary actions at the national level to promote sustainable development? If each action plan results in lacklustre implementation, are these conferences worth the effort, money, and carbon footprint?