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Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Events

Since it was first declared a pandemic in March 2020, COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of our lives, from the amount of toilet paper we keep at home at any given time to the way we conduct work and interact with colleagues, customers, and our families.

Like in many other industries, virtual meetings and events have quickly gone from a “nice-to-have” or an occasional supplement to in-person meetings to an absolute must-have in the life science industry. I believe that there are dozens of reasons why they will continue to play a major role in the post-COVID new normal. The increased flexibility, convenience, cost-savings, engagement rates, and quality and quantity of insights are some of the most important ones. Other benefits include the enhanced memory retention and reduced production-blocking that come with shorter, but more frequent virtual touchpoints. However, something that has not received as much attention yet is the substantially reduced environmental impact of virtual vs. in-person meetings.

Take this as a hypothetical scenario: a Canadian pharmaceutical company is holding a national advisory board meeting in downtown Toronto, 30 km from the airport. There are 20 participants, including 4 participants from Toronto (driving to the venue), and 2 each from Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa-Gatineau, St. Johns, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Excluding the carbon emissions associated with the venue, food, and printed meeting materials, the economy flights for 16 participants, average 30-km drive to/from the departure airport, and individual taxi rides between Toronto airport and the venue result in approximately 9.42 metric tons of CO2 released into the atmosphere. This is the equivalent of 21.8 barrels of oil or 1.6 homes’ electricity use for a year, in case you need a better visual.

Now imagine that we are talking about an international medical congress or conference with several hundred or even thousands of participants. Moving these types of events online can make an enormous impact in terms of reducing our environmental footprint. Even adopting a hybrid model where attendees are given the choice to attend virtually would be impactful, and would also substantially lower the barrier to attend for participants, as well as the costs for the organizer.

If there is one good thing to come out of the pandemic, it is the realization that we cannot, and should not, go back to the way things were.

We are way past the point of debating whether climate change is real and made by humans. We should now be looking at the best ways of minimizing the damage that has already been done. Virtual meetings and events alone will not solve the climate crisis but should be considered another tool from our rapidly growing toolbox.

Limiting the global temperature rise this century below 1.5-2°C above pre-industrial levels, as outlined in the Paris Agreement on climate change, may seem like an impossible task. However, giving up is simply not an option. The actions taken to battle the climate crisis today represent the largest public health opportunity in our lifetime. When every little bit counts, it has never been more important for everyone to start doing their part.

Now, the next step will be for organizers to look for virtual event solutions that will make participants want to attend virtually even once we can safely travel again.


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