The UN Climate Conference took place in Madrid in Dec 2019. I decided to travel down from Barcelona to find out how sustainable was COP 25?  


It is no surprise that yet again, we have another climate gathering that we can list as a missed opportunity.

There never seems to be enough of an incentive for industries to wind down, or for companies to divest and reinvest in other products and services.

And by “incentive” I mean, financial incentives. These are the ones that companies and industries tend to look for: the incentive of an uninhabitable planet doesn’t seem to cut the mustard at the moment.

So we have to wait for another year at least (COP 26 takes place in my home city of Glasgow) to see how the world will reduce its carbon targets, to try to limit global warming to only1.5 degrees Celsius.

In the meantime, we have business as usual.

So what exactly is the business of events, doing to showcase a sustainable future for our industry?

There was surely nowhere better to look for some sustainable innovation than at the COP summit itself and there, we had a little look into the future.

The UN Conference on Climate Change was a massive event, by anyone’s standards.

Some 20,000 delegates and observers attended the Ministerial Conference.

There were several pavilions, which showcased a whole host of interesting content and talks, loads of fringe events and a Green Zone exhibition.

This was a huge event, but was it sustainable?

For any event to be sustainable it has to deliver value


In one huge regard, this was a very unsustainable event.

20,0000 people were gathered from across the globe (many of them flying) to make decisions about the future.

As part of those discussions, they were to decide what new carbon targets should be set for the future, and in that, they failed.

To have a sustainable event it has to achieve something. Missing one of the main objectives was not a great start.

There is no point in holding a pointless meeting.

So if you want to run a sustainable meeting, the first thing you should concentrate on is making sure that gathering all the people in one place will achieve something.

Otherwise, is there really any point?


Sustainability across the whole event


But we must look beyond this to see what sustainable targets were set and if they have been achieved.

Overall, COP 25 didn’t set any extraordinary targets. In fact, they didn’t publish any specific targets at all.

I like to see things like: “we will reduce waste food by 80% compared to industry standard/our last event, etc”, but there were none of these types of targets.

That’s a real shame.

It is very hard to measure success if you don’t set measurable targets.

Instead, you will find that instead of targets, they went for the softer approach of “suggestions” and “attempting” to do things and unfortunately you would find most of their “suggestions” at any big conference.

COP 25 Madrid, did however seek to be carbon neutral by eventually offsetting the carbon used by the organisers and the attendees.

But of course, they won’t be able to account for everything, and only what is reported will be offset. I bet they don’t include my pet hate! (heaters not security guards)

sustainability at events

If you have an event please BAN the use of these heaters.

Being sustainable is of course much more than about reducing the release of carbon.

So the organisers also looked to:

  • organise a paper light conference
  • stream some of the sessions
  • separate waste and
  • encouraged reusable materials in the different areas within COP 25

As I noted above, this is what you would expect to see for any large international event, so it wasn’t really pushing any boundaries.

To be truly sustainable an event of this size has to consider all of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals and to consider the impact of the event on these 17 areas.

Cutting your carbon, recycling and using less plastic does not make your event wholly sustainable.

sustainable goals for events

One important point: the event was moved at exceptionally short notice; from Chile to Spain in ONLY six weeks!

It would, therefore, be hugely unfair to use these goals as a fair way to measure the sustainable impact.

However, an event like the UN’s climate conference MUST try to be as sustainable as possible.

I will go into how we cover these sustainable goals at our events in a later post.

But for the moment it is important to look at the COP in Madrid and consider using these goals to ask: how sustainable was COP 25 in Madrid?

Part of the answer was to be found in the exhibition area, I really think we saw the future for events like this.

The green zone was a glimpse of a sustainable exhibition.


How sustainable was COP 25 Madrid – the Green Zone


This was the official exhibition area and it was great to see that the organisers have tried and succeeded to make this zone very sustainable.

COP 25 sustainability

Exhibition spaces were stripped back and the material used was as re-usable as possible

Cardboard was everywhere! Check out the cardboard stage set and the cardboard furniture below!

cardboard tables and chairs

Cardboard is not only reusable but it is super lightweight, reducing carbon footprint during transportation


sustainable examples at events

A fully cardboard stage set

And we even went full-on cardboard signage!

sustainable signage at events

Cardboard points to the future for our signage at events

A stripped back exhibition has a BIG positive sustainable impact. This may very well be the template for the exhibition of the future!

When asking how sustainable was COP 25 Madrid, we can find some very positive things to say about the exhibition space.

As well as the logistical setup, the space included zones that covered many of the 17 sustainable goals.

The space was an educational hub, as well as an opportunity for delegates to speak to companies.

The organisers were really able to address more than the “no plastics and no waste” SDGs.

A very well done on this! COP 26 in Glasgow will have a lot to live up to!


Other areas and other official side events


Unfortunately, the sustainability of the other areas wasn’t up to the high standard of the Green Zone.

I attended one official side event, the Sustainability Innovation Summit, and it was clear that they were trying to cover some of the sustainable aspects covered in the 17 UN SDGs.

One BIG positive was their commendable decision to have a totally vegan menu during the two day event.

This was fantastic. As was the food and it was snapped up!

sustainable vegan menus at events

100% vegan menus for over 700 attendees. And they loved it!

However, they failed on the gender balance of the panels. Overall it was around 15% female and 85% male.

One of my top tips when trying to organise a gender balanced panel is to extend the time you spend searching for panellists, so I have to cut them some slack, having only five weeks to fill many of the slots, meant it would have been harder to find the balance.

However, it was striking, and for the modern event, it is a terrible visual to have associated with your event.

I wasn’t able to enter the official conference or any of the pavilions but I spoke to some of the delegates.

It was, as you would expect, heavily male dominated speakers on stage.

And there was a huge amount of food waste.

There are ways to avoid so much waste food and I cover this in-depth here.

So if you want to avoid the mistakes made with food at COP 25 check out the post.


So, overall, how sustainable was COP 25? Well, not that sustainable


There were genuine reasons for it falling short on a few areas: it may have been a totally different event had it taken place in Santiago as planned.

So, let’s not be too harsh, and what we can do is look at some of the examples from the Green Zone and the Sustainable Innovation Summit.

As we strive for more sustainable events we have to pick up the good examples from other events and make sure we avoid the bad things.


Looking ahead to COP 26 in Scotland


COP 26 takes place in Glasgow at the SECC. I hear from the inside that it will be a much, much more sustainable event. I hope so!

I did a sustainable case study of the host venue a few years ago and it didn’t score very highly.

But I have high hopes for 2020. Working in sustainability you have to be an optimist.

In summary, not only does an event have to be organised on a more sustainable footing, but crucially the event itself HAS TO DELIVER. The biggest positive impact you can have at your event maybe not running the event at all!

At COP 26, the ministerial delegates not only have to set a new interim global target for carbon reduction, but they have to explain to a waiting, and warming world, exactly how they are going to achieve it.

I will be there, but it won’t only be event organisers sizing up the sustainability of COP 26, it will be the whole world.

Published On: December 19th, 2019 / Categories: Exhibitions, Sustainable events /