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April 21, 2022

The Environmental Impact of Physical vs Online Events

There are some shocking facts about climate change out there — and sometimes information is difficult to find, inaccessible, or difficult to read. We’re in no position to comment on the politics of it all — but one thing we can talk about is events and their impact on the environment.

Even for us ridiculously upbeat folks at Tevent, staying optimistic about our collective future as a species isn’t an easy thing to do these days. A glance at the news usually does it. Just this week, the UN released a ‘now or never’ cry to limit global warming to 1.5° C, the widely acknowledged threshold to mitigate unmanageable effects of climate change. We can’t really speak about the politics of handling climate change. Whatever the past may have been, we’re all in this together. What we can think and speak about is how best to host our events for our own future, not just for the planet’s or its wonderful flora and fauna. And, fellow citizens and event champions, we’d love for you to come along on this journey with us.

The case for physical, in-person events

Gone are the days when hosting an event only meant in-person physical gatherings. The list of considerations when hosting an in-person event is lengthy. Where are you hosting the event? Usually, venue selection involves finding a place to fit the size of the gathering, the agenda of the event, and also importantly, budget constraints. It doesn’t stop there — think about the attendees’ commute to the venue and the kind of transport they’d need to use; maybe even considerations around parking. If local, attendees could possibly walk or commute to the event — how else would they reach the neighbourhood pub quiz? If small enough, maybe you’d even host it at home.

Getting into the weeds, you would be thinking about event management — how would the budget be distributed for organising? How large would the team be? Would you need volunteers? How long would you need to prepare for the event? What about registrations? Ticket stubs ring a bell anyone, or are you going paperless? At the event itself, you’d need to be thinking about refreshments, food and beverage choices, lights and sounds; maybe even a screen on stage.

Accessibility for physical events in terms of health, wealth, and location has so many insights and implications that it’s a topic on its own. We’ll cover this one soon, so be sure to be on the lookout for that one. Back to the topic at hand — we’re sure we must have missed many more considerations for hosting physical events, but you get the point — so many pieces to the puzzle, aren’t there?

Despite all this, in-person events worked, and still do. The kind of interactions you have at physical events makes it all worth the trouble because you usually achieve whatever you set out to do, and hopefully, even have fun while participating.

The case for online (or virtual) events

The advent of virtual events, in comparison, is fairly recent, and its adoption was aided in no small way by the pandemic. The rise of technology has broken down barriers to coming together across the boundaries of location, budgets, inclusion, and access.

Don’t get us wrong, the challenges of event management and organisation still exist in virtual events — you still need to think of budget constraints, team dynamics, registrations, and the agenda itself. In essence, organisers and attendees are still getting up to speed with the new format and the various features that come with it.

A paper in the Journal of Cleaner Production reports that the virtual conference they studied did manage to encapsulate the main characteristics of physical events. Furthermore, the virtual conference offered benefits over its in-person counterpart in terms of accessibility, inclusivity, environmental impact, and academic quality.

However, “it also comes with several disadvantages, especially regarding informal interaction and screen fatigue. The facilitation of informal spaces for social interaction remains a central challenge for future events of this kind.” We can vouch for this — this is the gap that Tevent is trying to bridge.

Whichever way you slice it, online events are here to stay, especially since they’re able to offer access to events for those who, until now, were unable to attend due to geographical, situational, health, or wealth constraints.

The environmental impact of events by the numbers

As the Global Footprint Network puts it, our ecological footprint is a measure of how much nature we have and how much nature we use. (They also have a personal footprint calculator if you’re interested in finding out). You can read more about the environmental impact we all have with that as a starting point. With the hope that you have an inkling about what we’ll talk about now, let’s dive into the numbers.

It isn’t surprising that the environmental impact of physical events is higher than that of virtual ones. What will come as a surprise, is just how much more carbon-intensive they are. Let’s not mince words here. As stated in this article on nature communications, when it comes to physical events, “the carbon footprint per participant reaches up to 3000 kg CO2, ... suggesting that the annual carbon footprint for the global event industry is of the same order of magnitude as the yearly GHG emissions of the entire United States (U.S.), responsible for more than 10% of global CO2 emissions.” We’re sure you’re as shocked as we were when we first read that.

Another study found that the emissions per participant for a three-day event came up to the equivalent of 0.57 tons of CO2. As is apparent from both reports, the Achilles heel for physical events is the amount of travel that attendees undertake to come together. How does this compare to online events? Taking the example that was highlighted in this article, each international attendee at an in-person event accounted for the same amount of emissions as the cumulative of a virtual event that had around 7000 attendees.

Online events are tough to quantify, but researchers around the world are unravelling this mystery. Let’s start at the macro level. Based on this paper, the information and communication technology industry accounted for ‘3.9% of worldwide electricity consumption in 2007, increasing to 4.6% in 2012’. That number is only going to rise, with development and access to electricity and the internet growing around the world, something most of us are fortunate to take for granted.

To put the emissions of a single online event in perspective again, based on this study, a virtual event that had over 200 attendees had a carbon emission level of 1324 kgs of CO2. This is significantly lower than the figure we saw earlier for the impact of a single in-person event attendee (3000kgs of CO2). However, it's the same as that of a person driving more than 5300 kilometres burning around 680 kilograms of coal.

Okay, I know, the numbers are starting to get overwhelming now. Here’s one last interesting insight from the same research — the Achilles heel for online events? Network data transfer (think about the videos you’re sending and receiving between attendees), which accounts for over 60% of the emissions. Surprisingly, 19% of the emissions came from pre-event planning meetings, and only 11% from computer usage. Okay, that’s it, we promise.

TLDR for this section: online events are better for the environment than physical, in-person ones.

As a side, did you know that each Google search you make emits 0.2 grams of CO2 into the atmosphere?

What can we do to make events more environment-friendly?

Alright, now that we’ve shown you the lay of the land, let’s talk about what we can do to make events better for us all. The choice of hosting an in-person or online event depends on many factors. If you’re hosting one, you’ll know what works best for you and your audience. Whichever format you choose, you can still take some steps to try to make your events friendlier to the environment. No matter the event you host, you might also want to take a look at ways you can contribute to carbon offsetting. Find more on that here.

For physical events, remember that transport is the single major contributor to emissions. Here are some ideas inspired by, but not limited to, this article we liked.

  • Reduce the frequency of your events: host it once every two years instead of one, for example.
  • Create multiple hubs for events based on your attendees’ locations. Maybe host one on different continents with bonus features to network in a hybrid fashion if possible.
  • If hosting locally, think about choosing venues accessible by public transport.
  • Go paperless at your events, and eliminate physical tickets completely. Or take it further and go zero-waste.
  • What food and refreshments are you serving? Apparently, ‘a beef burrito will account for 6,8kg of CO2, whereas a black bean burrito will account for only 0,54kg of CO2’. Think along those lines.
  • See if you can go completely online. Just putting it out there.

Online events, while intrinsically friendlier than in-person events, can also benefit from some optimisations if you so choose.

  • Remember network data transfer and videos? Well, you could keep videos optional. No video transmission, less data transfer, less CO2 in the atmosphere. You can bring emissions down, potentially by 96%.
  • Laptops, over PCs. Encourage your attendees to use laptops, or even mobile if possible. A laptop user will produce approximately 12g of CO2, while a PC user will produce 47g of CO2. (Source)
  • Choose event platforms and tools that run on green servers. Check out the Green Web Foundation to find out more.
  • Efficiency isn’t always the right way to go, but it won’t hurt once in a while. The more streamlined your event agenda is, the less hassle your attendees might face, and the quicker you could meet your goals. Again, it’s not always what you’d want, so take it with a grain of salt.

Last, but not least, see if Tevent fits the bills for your event's needs. Psst, it’s free.

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