The average U.S. meeting attendee, over the course of a three-day event, uses more than 2,000 BTUs of electricity, consumes more than 800 gallons of water, and generates more than 80 pounds of waste.
According to the 2001 Environmental Protection Agency study upon which these statistics are based, during those three days, that attendee will account for the emission of more than 1,400 pounds of greenhouse gases — the amount a typical driver produces driving a car for a month.
Picture a conference of 500 attendees. Multiply that by the thousands of such meetings held around the world each year, and you start to see how huge a role the meetings industry plays in pushing the world toward what many experts say is an environmental crisis.
“The environmental aspects [of meetings] have been invisible to us,” says Shawna McKinley, executive director of the Green Meeting Industry Council, Portland, Ore. “But people are becoming much more aware of it.”
While airline flights make up about 3 percent of manmade carbon dioxide emissions, jet airplanes also burn kerosene, which produces nitrous oxide and water vapor, both of which are believed to add to global warming. The effect of air travel on the atmosphere is expected to increase, with the Airports Council International predicting that the total number of people flying on an annual basis will double over the next two decades.
Europe is leading the way in trying to reduce or mitigate airline greenhouse gas emissions. The European Commission is bringing air travel into its emissions trading system, under which emissions caps will apply to all flights within the European Union beginning in 2011, and will be extended to international flights in 2012. Airlines that want to exceed those thresholds will have to purchase emissions allowances. In the U.K., in an effort to curtail air travel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the government recently increased a tax on flights by $20 to $80, depending on the length of the flight.
In the U.S., Susan Gurley, executive director of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives, expects “there will be taxation implications due to environmental issues” when it comes to air travel. That's OK, she says, as long as the industry has a say in where that money goes.
The resultant rise in air travel costs, particularly for long-haul flights, is likely to increase pressure on organizations to reduce travel or trip distance.
Mitigation efforts are extending into the hotel industry. Marge Anderson, associate director of the Energy Center of Wisconsin, in Madison, a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving energy sustainability, believes that hoteliers will soon pay taxes based on the size of their environmental footprints.
A growing number of hotel companies are greening their structures and operations. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts was one of the first to take a strong interest in environmental issues, from the development of its Green Partnership program in 1990 to its new Eco-Meet Program, which gives planners a structure through which they can reduce waste and increase the environmental awareness of attendees.
Fairmont is proof that being environmentally sensitive can help a company's bottom line. Michele White, director, environmental affairs, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, says that the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Sonoma, Calif., recently replaced 4,440 incandescent bulbs with fluorescent lighting. As a result, the hotel saves more than 203,000 kilowatt hours of energy, a cost savings of $61,000 per year. The savings paid for the initiative in two months, she says, and accounts for an annual reduction of 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions.
Todd Jersey, principal of Todd Jersey Architecture, a green architectural firm in Berkeley, Calif., recently designed two California hotels, Gaia Napa Valley Hotel in American Canyon and the Atman in Anderson. He says that “you can get a super-high-performance green building at a commercially affordable price.”
The hotels have dozens of green features, including solar electric systems, daylight in every space, passive heating and cooling, a lagoon that provides habitat for native aquatic birds, an ozone laundry system, high-efficiency HVAC systems, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, and finishes with zero volatile organic compounds.
“The principles involved in building a hotel like this are exactly the same for a 1,350-room hotel as they would be for a 135-room hotel,” Jersey says.
Meeting planners and facilities need to be environmentally conscious not only for altruistic reasons, but also because it makes business sense, says Shawna McKinley. “Sometimes when we talk to organizations, the best message is purely environmental, but for most, it's the business case — how implementing best practices can increase energy efficiency, or avoid waste — and in the end, reduce costs.”