A throw-away trend or something that will shape our events, how should we view flight shaming in the events industry?

In December 2019 I travelled to Madrid to attend the Sustainable Innovation Summit, an official side event at the COP 25UN Climate Change Conference. I was very keen to find out what sustainability professionals thought about flight shaming.

sustainable signage at events


COP 25, the UN Climate Change Conference, which has the objective to move the United Nations Paris Agreement into practical action, really couldn’t have got off to a worse start.

As delegates arrived through the thick early morning fog in Madrid, nothing much at all seemed to be clearing.

Climate conferences seldom run smoothly and expectations for COP 25 were lower than most.

The Conference was saved by Madrid after the Chilean Government refused to host the conference owning to security issues. Logistically this meant a huge effort just for the event to take place.

But somehow, Madrid and the Spanish Government pulled it off.

Over 20,000 delegates and observers arrived in Madrid for an extended summit at the start of December.

In the lead up to the event, and just as the relocation planning was getting back on track, the UN announced that greenhouse gas emissions will likely have increased by 0.6% in 2019.

Research has suggested that global emissions must fall by close to 8 per cent per year over the next decade to have any chance of limiting warming to just 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

Prior to the release of this research, the world was contemplating the difficulty of pushing a massive boulder up a steep mountain, we now have to first, stop it hurtling towards us.

Flight Shaming In The Events Industry – Time For Action

To say that this increase in emissions was “disappointing” is putting it mildly

But really what did anyone expect?

As the world continues to believe in the impossibility of sustainable growth, which is baked into the UN sustainable goals, (check out my post about why big events aren’t always beautiful), the temperature increase of only 1.5 degrees is, many believe, already beyond us.

This is why the concept of flight shaming in the events industry is so important and to put it simply: we have to reduce the number of flights taken by our attendees. 

Shame is, of course, a very strong word. No one enjoys the feeling or the sensation, so, environmentalists hope that shame will stop people flying.

By shaming people into not flying as far, or as often, the hope is that global CO2 emissions from flying will fall.

That’s the important point, emissions have to fall, not stay the same and definitely not increase. But we are only heading one way and it is the wrong way.

Almost every industry has a carbon footprint and the airline industry is one of the biggest and that’s why “flight shaming” (or rather reducing emissions from flying) is so important. 

Everyone is looking for, fewer people, to fly less often, and shorter distances to attend events.

Undeniably the events industry has to play a role in trying to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. However……..

If you had followed the COP 25 summit (I carried out a sustainability review of the event which you can read here) you would have read that the agreed targets and actions to reduce climate-warming have been “postponed” to COP 26 in 2020. 

Everyone, every industry and every country have to play their part. However…..

It was obvious that it wasn’t just some of the larger counties who were reluctant to live up to their responsibilities, they were joined by one of the planets biggest polluters – air travel.  

Shame is something that everyone seems to want to avoid except the DG of the Organisation representing air travel. What he said on the platform will shock every event organiser.

The growing challenge and why flight shaming in the events industry has to lead to a reduction in the size of physical events

Before we cover what the air travel industry had to say, we should hear the voice of sanity.

During the COP Sustainability Innovation Summit, Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, the Energy and Environment Minister from Costa Rica, one of the global leaders in climate change, expressed his frustration at the progress of the Ministerial negotiations:

“Economic interests are still outweighing environmental concerns and some countries want to stop talking about only 1.5 degree Celsius increase,” he said.

It was easy to be frustrated.

Dennis Pamlin, another voice of reason, from Mission Innovation, a global initiative working to accelerate clean energy innovation said:

“More than twenty years of climate work and we don’t have much success if anything we are going backwards”

Both speakers were on stage at an event designed to bring together companies with Government Ministers, local government officials and other NGOs, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of tackling climate change.

The inescapable truth is that there are infinitely more challenges, especially when some of the largest polluters still think that growing their industry is good.

The Airline Industry was represented by Alexandre de Juniac, Director General & CEO, IATA.

In a short speech, full of spin and hyperbole, the IATA DG & CEO suggested that the industry is happy that it will reduce its overall pollution level by 2030, while transporting more than four times the number of current flyers. 

Without quite explaining how this would happen, when modelling suggests that the airline industry by 2050 will contribute 25% of global emissions, he mentioned futurist electric planes and increased use of yet to be developed sustainable biofuel.

During his speech, he also mentioned flight shaming in the events industry.

Alexandre de Juniac encouraged attendees to fly to attend national events rather than take the train. You can see why I’ve put that in bold: there is no flight shaming here. 

After such a blatantly ridiculous thing to say, at a sustainability conference of all places, it was hard to take anything he said seriously.

So, of course, I had to press him on this idea, and on he went, taking things further and suggesting that the carbon footprint of an event attendee joining online should be considered “in the round” when looking at the emissions of flying an attendee to an event.

I am a huge fan of online events and you can read about how to run more of these events here, and I think this is one of the ways that our industry can deal with a climate breakdown.

So in case, I was missing something that would affect my view of the sustainability of online events, I found someone who knew a lot more about carbon and data usage and storage than me (or Alexandre).

Tate Cantrell, CTO of Verne Global, a leading data provider said that “an extra virtual attendee has an almost negligible carbon footprint” 

Compare this “in the round”, to the 115Kg of CO2 emissions I would have used had I chosen to fly from my home city of Barcelona to Madrid (I took the train by the way)

sustainable online event

Flight shaming avoided if attendees are online

The role of the events industry in reducing the number and duration of flights for our attendees

The current attitude of the air industry helps demonstrate the impossibility of a zero-emissions future. Governments and regulators can not rely on corporations and large carbon-based industries to “choose” to reduce their damaging environmental impacts; business as usual, means the usual business.

The IATA DG & CEO was not the only business representative to mention “incentives”, it was the cornerstone of many of the presentations from businesses at the summit.

Unfortunately, there was no one on the platform to speak about the role of the events industry and how we are dealing with our carbon footprint.


Will flight shaming in the events industry work?

One thing for sure is that by shaming people you are not likely to change behaviour: shaming people has the effect of making them hide their shameful behaviour rather than change it.

So the first thing we should do is to drop the shibboleth that flight shaming will work.

We do of course have to reduce the number of people flying to attend our events.

We have to focus on that, rather than the shaming of people who fly.


The events industry has to face its own reflection

The most important thing that individual event organisers and the wider events industry can do is to run events which are much more sustainable.

I’ve covered in detail how you can run a sustainable event in an extended, practical post.

As well as the practical things that organisers can do at their events, the events industry has to explain and educate our potential attendees on the negative impact of flying often and far to attend events.

But more importantly, rather than just talk about it, we have to do something about it.

  • This means that every organiser has to attract as many non-flying attendees to their physical events as they can.
  • Organisers have to look to encourage more online attendees and
  • Painfully, I am sure, we have to drop the idea that every event has to grow.

The incentives for the event industry to become a more sustainable industry

When we talk about incentives, businesses and industries tend to mean financial incentives.

Incentives is a powerful and positive word. It is the opposite of shame.

Incentivising people not to fly is much better than shaming them into not flying.

If our industry is to become more sustainable, you will hear our representatives talk about subsidising our industry, through tax breaks or by taxing the competition, while of course allowing them to generate at least the same profits. 

Of course, we will do this, the events industry is no different from any other industry in that it wants to financially protect shareholders and staff.

But let’s look in the mirror. If you shook your head at the belligerence of the air industry encouraging people to fly rather than take the train, are we any different when we encourage people to physically attend rather than attend online? Are we any different from the air industry?

Perhaps the reason change has been so slow, in response to the climate crisis, is that we hide our shame and often we have no shame.

Maybe the idea of an uninhabitable planet is not incentive enough for many of the biggest polluters on the planet to change the way they do business.

As event organisers, are we the ones who should feel ashamed?

Published On: January 14th, 2020 / Categories: Gallus Events visits, Sustainable events /