Are Net-Zero Carbon Events the Future?

In this Meetings Today podcast, Tyler Davidson talks to James Rees, president of Joint Meetings Industry Council (JMIC), about one of the events industry's most pressing issues: sustainability. At PCMA Convening Leaders 2022, Rees details the Net-Zero Carbon Events Pledge initiative, key challenges surrounding business travel and carbon footprints, and the way forward for greener in-person meetings.

Listen now or read the transcript below:


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Tyler Davidson: Hello, this is Tyler Davidson with Meeting Today. Welcome to this Meetings Today podcast. We are taping here at PCMA Convening Leaders in Las Vegas. And today's guest is James Rees, president of the Joint Meetings Industry Council. Thanks for joining us, James.

James Rees: It's such a pleasure, thanks for the opportunity to to be with you here today.

Tyler: And we're going to talk today about net-zero carbon events and sustainability. Always a huge issue in our industry, which everyone knows is prone to a little bit of waste, and now we've been through, and are still going through, a pandemic. But it's still a very important topic for the industry and the world in general. So why don't you tell us James, more about the Joint Meetings Industry Council, and then what you're doing and trying to create a more sustainable meetings and events industry?

James: Okay. Well, Tyler, the JMIC, the the acronym, Joint Meetings Industry Council, is an umbrella organization, and has most of the global meetings, industry associations, as its members. So it's traditionally been an umbrella organization. One thing that the pandemic has driven, as far as we're concerned, is a need for JMIC to really step up its game further. And as such, we are now incorporating JMIC as a full association and be headquartered in, in Brussels, in Belgium, in Europe, and we are working to really to bring the industry together and tackle the key challenges all our time.

Clearly, COVID has been a big one. But even before the pandemic, the challenge for our industry, which has had a reputation in some areas to be a somewhat wasteful one, you know, there was work going on already, before COVID was even a thing, to be more green, to use sustainable products, to reduce the carbon footprint, partly because firstly, it's the right thing to do. It's the right thing for humanity, for sustainability, for the environment, but also through increasing client demand.

All of our lives, we read the news, we see what's going on around the world. It is something that's coming down the road to all of us. And as JMIC members, we felt it was really important, coming out of the pandemic, to put this as our number one priority, because we truly believe it is the big priority now, for the meetings and events industry. And, for clarity, JMIC covers the many areas of events. It's not just meetings, it's trade shows, it's consumer shows, it's sports events, and anything that's an event and that has an impact and potentially a carbon footprint, is covered by our association.

Tyler: And I think we were speaking earlier, and maybe it's not the best corollary but, you know, for our North American audience, it's sort of similar probably to Events Industry Council, which is sort of an umbrella group of organizations.

James: It's Europe, it is smaller in North America as well. Yeah, Latin America and Asia Pacific. So it really covers a truly global audience. And that one of our other key projects is to really is develop the membership because there are a lot of other associations around the world that we know want to be now joining JMIC and, following this crusade if you like for the net-zero, and that's where we've been working very closely now with the UNFCCC to to develop a program. And that gave us the opportunity to attend and present our plans at the COP26 Climate Change conference in Glasgow, just in the fall last year.

Tyler: And tell us more about that. The Net-Zero Carbon Events pledge, correct?

James: Yes. So the kickoff has been to garner support from the industry, from suppliers, from associations from destinations. And the first part of this is, is a pledge. So all of these organizations and are signing up to say, "we are now committing to reductions by 2030 and net-zero by 2050," in line with the Paris Climate Accord from the COP event that happened in Paris in 2015. So that is the pledge. Beyond the pledge, we will then be seeking funds to help develop the program and then provide the tools to each of those organizations so that they have measurement tools and support tools to turn that pledge into reality. Because we we have to combine all the efforts of all the constituent organizations that are in this industry to find the the solutions to the problem we have in front of us.

Tyler: And that must be one of the reasons you're here at Convening Leaders and maybe talking with some of the leaders that operate more in North America and its meetings and events of industry.

James: Absolutely. You and I are meeting today talking about this matter. I've had side meetings with many of my colleagues over here, in the USA, and North America as a whole. And the support that's coming in behind this initiative, is, it's thrilling to see that everyone is is getting behind this and realizing this is a team challenge, we've all got to play our part. And, you know, to make it happen by 2050.

Tyler: And I think, you know, one of the big push backs, maybe people have or fears, and especially probably in the United States, just because of the size of the country is about airline travel and the carbon footprint that that has. And an interesting term I hear is "flight shaming," which I hear is a lot more prevalent in Europe. And Europe has a much more better infrastructure with trains, it's easier to get around. Maybe explain to the listeners, what this means to them in the U.S. Because of the unique qualities of our meetings and events industry here.

James: Well, I think part of what we're doing is talking about exactly this, what you've just raised. Air travel clearly is a challenge. I come from a city, in London. And actually the percentage of carbon footprint caused by air traffic is a very small percentage. The carbon footprint comes from the buildings that are in the city, the lighting, the power to keep things.

So what we need to do is to is to educate ourselves as to where the key challenges are. With air travel, you talked about flight shaming. And I know many big corporations are choosing not necessarily the cheapest option for business travel. But rather than taking a cheap option of two or three flights to get to your destination, actually pay the extra and take the one flight and that gives you maybe a 50% reduction on that particular generator. 

We're seeing that long haul from Europe to Asia Pacific, rather than doing a two- or three-leg tour down to Singapore or Hong Kong, actually taking the direct flight is the greener way of doing it. And then we believe it's our role as well to support the industry, the airline industry, in developing those biofuels and all the things they're doing because they've got a problem. We can't solve the airline's problems, but we can support and and recognize the efforts they're making in engine design and fuel efficiency in the use of biofuels. Because they're going to have to by 2050, or as soon as they can have a greener industry as well. We all have to. So we should support them and recognize excellence when they do achieve those next steps.

Tyler: And I guess another question, which a lot of people would have is, the viability of in-person meetings. And I know speaking with folks here, they'll tout that, you know, up and down 24/7. How important is that? I mean, do you still believe that in-person meetings are important and do we need to look at maybe restructuring those maybe we have less in-person meetings and have one very big in-person meeting to kind of fulfill some of the the key qualities only an in-person meeting can provide?

James: Well, to an extent, my day-to-day business, I work for a convention and exhibition center in London in the U.K. called ExCel. So naturally, you know, I'm going to say yes, we've got to get back to face-to-face. But we are already seeing as we return to face-to-face events, that the quality of interaction, the building of trusted relationships that you only get by, you know, looking in each other's eyes and debating what's happening in the world, you cannot get that through a computer screen.

Some people will probably not like me saying this, but if bad event events that were bad before the pandemic, if they don't return, that's a good thing, actually, for our industry, because we should be promoting excellence and promoting the best events. Yeah, if that means you only go to the one industry event rather than the three, it's almost a fight to quality, the very best world-leading or market-leading events will come back and will succeed. And if the lower-tier events don't reappear, then that's probably not such a bad thing.

Tyler: And even if folks here in North America aren't really familiar with your group, they will be familiar with a lot of folks that have become signatories of the pledge. IMEX group, Javits Convention Center, I believe. Freeman is a signatory.

James: Also Informa. Yeah, the big heavy hitters, they all see that this is the big challenge for the industry right now. And they're prepared to invest. As we work out the models and the and the solutions that our industry needs, they're prepared to invest dollars, pounds, euros, whatever it is, to get there quicker. JMIC doesn't own this. It is really facilitating it, on behalf of the industry. That's where we see our role.

Tyler: Well, thanks for joining us, James. And before we end the the podcast taping today, what do you think, a year just kind of your frontline meeting and event organizer can I expect to see in the next five years, the next 10 years in this area?

James: Well, we've already started work with an agency in Europe, to start to build these models for us. You will see some output from that during the course of 2022 to 2023. And with the successful engagement with the COP26. conference, we will also be at both COP27 and COP28 in Sharm-El-Sheikh and then in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Arab Emirates. As we, you know, we bring this topic right to the very top levels of the United Nations and international governments. It's a big topic, and we will do our bit to to get the industry where it wants to be.

Tyler: Well, I wish you luck with all that and thanks for fighting the good fight on this.

James: And thanks for the opportunity to talk today. 

Tyler: Excellent. And that was James Rees, president of the Joint Meetings Industry Council. Thanks James, for joining us. And for you for listening to this Meetings Today podcast. If you're interested in hearing other podcasts we've done with industry thought leaders, please head on over to and check out our podcast section. Thanks again for joining us and have a great rest of the day.

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Tyler Davidson | Editor, Vice President & Chief Content Director

Tyler Davidson has covered the travel trade for nearly 30 years. In his current role with Meetings Today, Tyler leads the editorial team on its mission to provide the best meetings content in the industry.