How to Host a Sustainable, Carbon Neutral Conference or other Event

How to Host a Sustainable, Carbon Neutral Conference or other Event

Large events such as conferences, sports competitions, concerts, festivals, and conventions can be major sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity, heating and air conditioning, ground transportation, air travel, paper and other materials are just some of the ways that large events contribute to climate change. However, many event organizers are recognizing that large events do not have to have a huge climate impact and, in fact, can play a positive role by becoming low-carbon or even carbon neutral.

Through the establishment of greenhouse gas reduction and offsetting initiatives, event organizers can take responsibility for their emissions, use their larger purchasing power and profile to lead in climate change action, and support the transition to more sustainable energy use. Benefits include the opportunity to publicly demonstrate commitment to sustainability and to inspire participants and spectators to choose low-carbon options in their own lives, as well as saving money through measures such as reducing energy consumption.

Recent major events that have taken responsibility for their greenhouse gas emissions include: the 2008 Montreal Jazz Festival, the 2007 Academy Awards, 2006 FIFA World Cup Soccer, the Dave Matthews Band concert tour, and the 2005 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The environmental leadership demonstrated by these events is helping to transform the event industry, with green initiatives quickly becoming an expected part of holding an event.

Virtually all aspects of any event can have a reduced climate impact, including: venue, registration, accreditation, transportation, offices, food and beverage services, procurement, and production. Climate-friendly practices range from waste minimization and energy conservation to using renewable energy and carbon offsets to mitigate emissions that remain after reduction efforts.

Organizers can also incorporate other greening initiatives at their event to complement their climate-friendly practices: water conservation or promoting positive social and economic development.

Getting Started

Climate-friendly event practices needn’t be limited to large-scale events. You can green an event of any size. For example, wedding planners are increasingly choosing to hold low-carbon or carbon neutral weddings.

Making an event carbon neutral is similar to making an organization or company carbon neutral. First, get a full commitment to a climate-friendly event from management when the planning starts. Then you’ll also need to allocate enough money, people and time to ensure that the initiative succeeds.

Identifying Emissions Associated With the Event

The next step is to define the carbon footprint of the event by identifying all sources of event-related greenhouse gas emissions. Major emissions sources will likely include travel to the host city, local road transportation, energy consumed by the event venue and energy used through stays at local hotels or homes. Smaller emission sources include transportation of goods the event needs, event organizer travel during planning and preparation, energy consumed by the event office, paper use and waste generation.

Reducing Emissions Is the Highest Priority

Once all emissions sources associated with the event are identified, strategies for reducing these emissions need to be devised. This is the most important step in staging a low-carbon event. If possible, targets can be set to help track performance. For instance, organizers may set out to reduce travel-related emissions by 25% by encouraging some participants to use videoconferencing. Or if the event is held annually, reduction targets can be based on previous years’ emissions.

Destination, venue and accommodation selection — as well as available transportation options and procurement decisions — will all impact the carbon footprint of the event. In general, the event’s scale and nature will influence how best to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, but some actions include:

Destination Selection

  • Select a destination city that is close to the majority of the participants and is served by direct flights. Multiple take-offs and landings result in higher emissions from air travel
  • Choose a destination city with a good public transport system that connects the event venue with major transportation hubs and accommodations.

Venue Selection and Service Provision

  • If possible, choose a venue that is LEED certified, or one that employs energy- and water-efficient equipment and practices, and schedules heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) resources around meeting requirements.
  • Request organic, locally produced food and beverages to cut transportation emissions. Organic food and beverages do not use synthetically produced fertilizers or chemicals derived from fossil fuels.
  • Eliminate disposable containers, plates, bowls, cups and cutlery.
  • Set up a compost program for all food waste. Composting reduces the amount of waste going to landfill and cuts emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.


  • Provide guests with information about accommodations with environmental certification or with environmental policies and practices.
  • Negotiate room blocks with hotels that are within walking distance of the event venue and/or have green policies.
  • Ask guests to participate in linen reuse programs at their hotels. Ask them to shut off lights, televisions and air conditioners or heaters when they leave their rooms.


  • Offer guests the choice to attend the event via videoconferencing.
  • Use alternative fuel vehicles in a guest shuttle service.
  • Alternatively, provide free passes for public transit.
  • If taxis must be used, choose taxi companies with hybrid vehicles.


  • Use Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, processed chlorine free and made from 100 percent post-consumer recycled content. Producing a tonne of recycled paper results in 80 percent fewer CO2 emissions.
  • Use printers and photocopiers that are Energy Star certified.
  • Choose suppliers that provide low-carbon products or services.

Measuring the Event’s Carbon Footprint

This means calculating the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by each source. The complexity of emissions calculations will vary with the size of the event. Small events can use existing online emission calculators . Bigger events often use a consultant or carbon offset provider to perform the calculations.

Offsetting Event-Related Emissions

Once energy conservation and emission reduction strategies are exhausted, emissions that cannot be further reduced or eliminated can be offset. Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) may be used to offset the electricity used during the staging of the event. Carbon offsets can be used to offset all emissions, including those from air travel, energy use (including electricity), vehicle use, etc. It is absolutely essential to choose a provider of high quality offsets to ensure that reductions in greenhouse gases actually occur.

If the carbon offsets purchased represent the total amount of emissions your event is responsible for (i.e., those that could not be avoided or reduced), you have succeeded in making your event carbon neutral!

Engaging Event Participants

Holding a low-carbon event can help raise awareness of climate change issues and actions that can be taken to reduce or offset greenhouse gas emissions, so it’s important to inform participants about the initiative. The event’s website, event program, press releases, opening, signage and post-event publications can all deliver the message. Large event organizers may want to set up an onsite sustainability booth to provide information about the event’s greening initiatives, and also issue a press release that discusses the event’s environmental initiatives.

Organizers may also choose to get participants involved by getting them to offset their own emissions. That option needs to be part of the registration or ticketing. However, passing on the onus of offsetting emissions to participants may not work, as not all participants will choose to do so. One option is for organizers to take responsibility for any leftover emissions not offset by participants. Another is to build the cost of offsetting into the ticket price. Whichever course you choose, make sure participants know you’re making the event a low-carbon one.

Other Ways to Make Your Event More Sustainable

As well as the low-carbon strategy for your event, there are many other practices that you can incorporate to reduce the environmental impacts of the event as well as maximize its social and economic benefits.

Examples of event greening practices that can be integrated into various aspects of the event planning process to address environmental, social and economic impacts include:

Registration and Accreditation

  • Electronic event registration.
  • Lanyards made from recycled materials. Asking participants to return them after the event.
  • Post-consumer recycled paper and vegetable-based inks for badges.


  • Providing shuttle service drivers with training in environmentally responsible driving practices.
  • No idling at the venue and major transportation hubs, such as airports.

Venue Selection

  • Ensure the venue is able to provide you with required data for the monitoring and evaluation of greening practices.
  • If you negotiate environmental practices not currently in place at the venue, ensure them by including them in contracts.

Food and Beverage

  • Organic, fairly traded coffee and tea.
  • Leftover food donated to local charities.
  • Seafood served is harvested responsibly.
  • Vegetarian meals or vegetarian meal options.

Exhibition Production

  • Provide exhibitors with guidance on sustainable design and construct of exhibit booths.
  • End-of-show take-back and recycling program.

Marketing and Communications

  • Electronic or paperless communication.
  • Sustainable printing guidelines.


  • Consider the environmental, social and economic impacts of a good or service throughout its lifecycle. Favour goods and services that result in minimal environmental impacts and foster positive social and economic development.
  • Use environmental criteria as well as quality and price.
  • Develop contract riders to hold suppliers accountable to sustainability commitments.


  • A sustainable procurement strategy for kitchen, office and cleaning supplies, furniture, office equipment and gifts.
  • A recycling program for glass, metals, plastic and paper.
  • Minimize paper use; encourage double-sided printing.
  • Develop an environmental awareness program.

2 Comments on How to Host a Sustainable, Carbon Neutral Conference or other Event

  1. Hi Anne
    well written. I teach a sustainability graduate program at my college and would like your permission to use this guideline as an example in one of my classes.I am happy to share with you some of my research and program content. There are 10 courses in the program.

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