Although embracing Virtual events was a consequence of the pandemic, they have been gaining a strong positive reputation recently. Besides giving us the possibility to socially interact and connect, these events have an essential role in reducing C02 emissions. After you learn about the eco-friendly impact of Virtual events, you will certainly start hosting these events and join us in helping our planet!
The pandemic of Covid-19 has shaped the world we used to know in the most unexpected ways. If two years ago the idea of a virtual or a hybrid event seemed far off, today we can observe a completely different opinion in people’s minds. Not only having such event formats made it possible for us to enjoy social interaction in the times of the pandemic, but they have also been proving themselves as a truly sustainable alternative to traditional in-person gatherings.
Besides the obvious hygienic advantage of hybrid and virtual events, these formats have another important upside to them. Primary reduced travel but also the reduced usage of hospitality services helps to drastically decrease CO2 emissions of conferences. They ultimately offer an alternative format for human exchange which is likely to gain even more relevance in the future.
In this article, there will be a comparison of emissions of physical and virtual events, to better grasp the positive effects of digital exchange. To finalize, possible ideas will be presented on how to make your event greener.
Comparing the CO2 equivalent of a Virtual and a Conventional Event
Several studies have compared the environmental impact caused by virtual and physical conferences and events. An increasing number of such analysis demonstrate the huge potential in the greenhouse gas reduction that virtual and hybrid events possess.
A more tangible example may elucidate the matter a bit more. Comparing a virtual event with 264 registered participants with its physical equivalent shows the following:
For the physical event, GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions can be mainly attributed to traveling. It is assumed some attendees will take a long-haul flight (39), others will travel by short-haul aviation (181), while the others will arrive by road transport (44). Along with emissions coming from hotel accommodation of those who needed to travel away from home the calculation adds up to:
- 282 tons of CO2
On the other hand, for the virtual version, the emissions will mostly come from the electricity consumed to power the attendees’ devices and from the electricity needed for servers assuring video and audio transfers. The difference is rather striking as the CO2 equivalent adds up to only:
- 1 ton of CO2
Note: This example is taken from Houston & Reay (2011)
To understand precisely how CO2 emissions for conventional, virtual, or hybrid events are calculated it is important to know where the emissions of the event forms come from. Having this knowledge will consequently empower one to reduce the negative impact. Let´s begin with the sources for conventional emissions and then move on to the virtual ones.
Sources of CO2 Emissions at Conventional Events
- Travel – First and perhaps the most obvious factor of resource consumption when it comes to traditional offline events is traveling to the actual event venue. Aviation emissions turn out to be the highest – a domestic flight will account for 133g of CO2 per passenger per kilometer – while the best alternative happens to be the railway, which emits 6g (BBC, 2019).
- Accommodation – Events often bring with them overnight stays. These overnight stays usually result in increased electricity and heating emissions, depending on the type of accommodation. Let’s consider a 6-day event with 5000 attendees. An average hotel room is approximately 30 square meters, and it accommodates 2 people. Considering the electricity and natural gas usage, roughly 225,2kg of CO2 is produced over those 6 days, which goes down to 0,78kg of CO2 per hour per person (Balanzat, 2020).
- Conference Venue – Next to accommodation, conference venues will also require electricity and heating or air conditioning. For the same 6-day event with 5000 participants, a conventional center will account for 298,7 kg of CO2, which results in 0.4 g CO2 emitted per person per hour (Balanzat, 2020).
- Catering – Depending on the type and amount of food and beverage provided during an event, GHG emissions will vary significantly. Assuming that the participants will be served one dish each day of the conference and 70% will opt for a meat dish while the others will decide on the vegan alternative, the emission for the average meal is 4.228 kg of CO2 (Emery and Molidor, 2019).
While virtual events without a doubt account for less CO2 emissions than conventional events, there are still factors that contribute to a certain amount of the carbon footprint.
Sources of CO2 Emissions at Virtual Events
- Electricity consumption of devices – Participants of events might use various devices to take part in online exchange such as Smartphones, Laptops, and PCs. Thus, a laptop user will produce approximately 12g of CO2, while a PC user will produce 47g of CO2 (Jäckle, 2021).
- Electricity consumption of data flow – The internet requires data transfer, traditionally by a cord, but more frequently through a wireless connection. The estimated average electricity intensity for internet transfers is 0,015 kWh/GB, which translates to 3g of CO2 per GB (Aslan, 2018).
- Lamp usage – Even if it is a small factor, the electricity we use daily for bringing light into our homes makes a difference. However, this factor shouldn’t be excluded for traditional events either as the venue will most probably light up in one way or another. A 100W light bulb used 0,1kWh each hour and therefore produces 23g of CO2/h (The SEO Team, 2017).
- Engine queries and website visits – Quantifying the energy consumption for engine queries can further help us determine the amount of CO2 emissions. For example, according to Google, each query causes 0.2g of CO2 (Quito, 2018).
- Allocated life cycle emissions – Refer to all the CO2 equivalents that are emitted when devices such as laptops are produced and transported. Faber states that 340kg of CO2 is produced in one computer’s life cycle (Faber, 2021).
Knowing all the previously mentioned factors contributing to an increased amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is possible to calculate how many different types of events contribute to human pollution.
At SCOOCS we currently estimate that the average participant that takes part in conferences via our platform produces around 50 g of CO2 per hour.
How can event organizers reduce their footprint?
After understanding how the carbon footprint of different events and conference formats can be calculated, it is intriguing to look at how the footprint of events can be reduced. This section will be helpful to event organizers to get a brief overview of sustainable solutions and sustainable events.
1. Hybrid Events
At first sight, it may seem as if virtual events are the only valuable alternative to traditional events to minimize CO2 emissions. But it is clear to many of us that not all events can be fully virtual, as they require an in-person factor to utterly serve their purpose. Yet, that doesn’t mean that those events must be moved entirely offline. We are well aware that things are not only black and white and not only online or offline ー they are also gray, and they are also hybrid. Thus, transforming traditional events into a mix of in-person and virtual activities is a good initiative for lowering CO2 emissions.
2. Carbon Offsetting
It has become a popular trend for frequent flyers to offset their CO2 emissions. For conscious flyers and environmentalists, companies like atmosfair have gained importance. They offer an easy solution for offsetting an environmental footprint e.g., by supporting households in Ruanda with efficient Woodstoves. Offsetting a return flight from Lisbon to Berlin costs around 30€. If one wants to offset the carbon emissions of a whole event there are possibilities to choose projects which impacts can be measured precisely. This, in return, could attract a whole new crowd of participants and might increase positively the reputation of the mentioned conference.
3. Eco-Friendlier Catering Menus
By choosing what kind of food will be catered at a certain event, the event organizer simultaneously chooses how big of an environmental impact those meals will cause. Replacing meat-heavy dishes with more sustainable menus – vegetarian, vegan, plant-based, and gluten-free – will not only reduce the carbon footprint but also offer a healthier and more nutritious alternative.
To put it into numbers, a beef burrito will account for 6,8kg of CO2, whereas a black bean burrito will account for only 0,54kg of CO2 (Aslan, 2018).
4. Green Technologies
Lastly, one should not be afraid to think on a bigger scale when it comes to sustainability and making this planet a greener one. Implementing green technology into an event’s infrastructure is a bold move that may need an initial investment, but could pay off notably in the future, and again, attract a bigger crowd of sustainability enthusiasts. Some possibilities of green technologies for you to explore are LED Lighting, Solar Panels on the event venue, and having an only electric vehicles policy.
As scary and unpredictable as the last two years have seemed (and perhaps still seem) to us, we must not forget to look at the brighter side of things. We have been given a precious opportunity to change some practices that we’ve been blindly following and open our eyes for greener alternatives that wait for us just around the corner. Sustainability is the future and you can start by hosting your events virtually!
Aslan, Joshua, Kieren Mayers, Jonathan G. Koomey, and Chris France. 2018. “Electricity Intensity of Internet Data Transmission: Untangling the Estimates: Electricity Intensity of Data Transmission.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 22 (4): 785–98. https://doi.org/10.1111/jiec.12630.
Balanzat, Don. (2020). “Green Conference: Reducing Carbon Emissions with a Virtual Conference.” Educators in VR (blog), March 9.https://educatorsinvr.com/2020/03/09/green-conference-reducing-carbon-emissions-with-a-virtual-conference/
BBC News. (2019, August 24). Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train? https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-49349566
Emery, Isaac, and Jennifer Molidor. (2019). “Catering to the Climate—How Earth- Friendly Menus at Events Can Help Save the Planet.” Oakland, CA: Center for Biological Diversity. https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/takeextinctionoffyourplate/pdfs/environmental_catering_report_catering_to_the_climate_final_report_2019.pdf.
Faber, G. (2021). A Framework to Estimate Emissions from Virtual Conferences.
Jäckle, S. (2021). Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Academic Conferences by Online Participation: The Case of the 2020 Virtual European Consortium for Political Research General Conference. PS: Political Science & Politics, 54(3), 456-461. doi:10.1017/S1049096521000020
Quito, A. (2018, May 25). Find out the environmental impact of your Google searches and internet usage. Quartz. https://qz.com/1267709/every-google-search-results-in-co2-emissions-this-real-time-dataviz-shows-how-much/.
The SEO Team. (2017, November 13). The Kilo Watt? Tips for Understanding Your Electricity Usage. Save On Energy Blog. https://www.saveonenergy.com/learning-center/post/the-kilo-watt-tips-for-understanding-your-electricity-usage/.
Author: Rita Villas-Boas
Co-Author: Fritz Trienekens