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Flight Shaming Isn't Just a Problem for Airlines

Thomas Seal

(Bloomberg) -- It’s a problem that Davos can’t solve.

The World Economic Forum tried to mitigate the environmental impact of all those private jets traveling to and from this year’s conference in the Swiss town by giving them the option to fill up on so-called sustainable aviation fuel, which is designed to lower carbon emissions compared to normal flights. Many attendees who left the conference after the last session on Friday will nevertheless have had to take commercial planes that use conventional fuel.

Given the WEF’s effort this week to tackle the risks facing the world economy from climate change  — environmental issues topped its agenda for the first time in the event’s 50-year history — it’s an uncomfortable situation on its own doorstep. It’s also a high-profile example of an issue confronting the entire conference industry: as concern about environmental damage from air travel has given birth to a “flight shame” phenomenon which has darkened carriers’ outlook, there’s the potential for a knock-on impact on the business of organizing business meetings. 

An average conference attendee emits as much as 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per meeting, according to TerraPass, a sustainability consultancy — about the same as driving from San Francisco to New York City. Some of the environmental impact comes from piles of brochures that might not get recycled, the food that gets wasted and the marketing swag that can end up in landfills. But the vast majority of carbon emissions come from air travel. 

“We must get ahead of change and public perception,” Jason Geall, vice president for Northern Europe at American Express Global Business Travel, said in a speech to business travel and meetings executives in London on Monday. “A failure to act now could leave us vulnerable to existential threats, such as flight caps and increased taxation and regulation.”

For now, environmental concerns haven’t hit events companies. Shares of Relx Plc, which derived about 18% of revenue from events in the first half of 2019, and Informa Plc, whose events unit contributed about 8%, were at or close to all-time highs on Friday.  UBS AG analysts led by Adam Berlin forecast 4% annual growth in the global exhibitions sector in the coming year, about the same pace as in recent years.

While more organizers are recognizing the need to mitigate the damage their events can cause to the environment, the industry hasn’t settled on an approach for tackling air travel. Some conference holders include carbon offsetting in the cost of the event tickets. Others leave attendees to address the problem themselves.

Take MWC, the annual meeting for the telecommunications industry in Barcelona. This year’s event starts Feb. 24, and in 2019 more than 100,000 people attended. For four of the last five years, Guinness World Records named it “The World’s Largest Carbon Neutral Trade Show.”  

MWC lists among its main achievements the creation of a green logo, and the use of recycled post-consumer bottles in the lanyards for attendees’ badges. Guests are also directed to a website where they can calculate and offset their emissions from attending the event, a spokeswoman said. The GSMA, the mobile industry lobby group that hosts the conference, calculates and offsets any emissions remaining, including from travel.

Though the events industry has been slow to tackle the problem of CO2 emissions from air travel, images of the Australian wildfires and calls for action from activists like Greta Thunberg have sparked interest in making meetings more green, said Nancy Zavada, president of environmental consultancy MeetGreen in Portland, Oregon. Demand for her services, which includes helping meeting organizers arrange teleconferencing and carbon offsetting for attendees’ flights, jumped about 20% in the last quarter, she said.

“The climate, the storms, the weather, are really starting to wake people up to what’s going on,” she said. “It’s also the Greta effect.”

Marcia Balisciano, director of corporate responsibility at Relx, says it’s important not to underestimate the efficiencies that can be achieved by big business events.

“If you come to this marketplace where your customers are going to be, or your suppliers, then it’s going to be a lot easier for you to do your business by traveling once,” she said. 

MeetGreen’s president also cautions against being too quick to criticize the environmental measures taken at Davos. The WEF doesn’t serve drinks in single-use plastic containers, uses 100% renewable energy, and to encourage walking in the Alpine snow, offers shoe grips and maps.

“They’re trying,” said Zavada. “They’re putting some stuff in place. They are just so public, they’re easy to pick on.”

To contact the author of this story: Thomas Seal in London at tseal@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jennifer Ryan at jryan13@bloomberg.net

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