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The Next Step

Gone as far as you can with traditional strategies to reduce your event’s footprint? Consider carbon offsets.

By Trish Snyder

You could say the Canadian Medical Association earned a green bill of health for its annual general meeting in Vancouver last year. Among other initiatives, event organizers arranged for attendees to have access to bikes, diverted 90 per cent of the event waste from landfill and hosted delegates at sustainable hotels. Then they went a step further in shrinking the carbon footprint of the conference: they invested in a forest protection project on Quadra Island, BC, by purchasing carbon offsets. Here's what you need to know to determine if they're a good option for your events:

How carbon offsets work
The David Suzuki Foundation describes carbon offsetting as a service: a buyer pays someone else to reduce green house gas emissions on their behalf. That means anyone can reduce their carbon footprint by investing in projects (such as wind farms or carbon capture) that reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon offsets won’t take back the emissions generated by your conference, but they can balance their negative effects when the revenue from the sale of offsets is used to make a positive impact on the environment.

Carbon offsets should never be the first step, says Vancouver-based event sustainability consultant Shawna McKinley. “Reducing emissions should always be paramount, followed by taking responsibility for unavoidable emissions through offsetting. Attendees are much more supportive of offsetting when they see sincere efforts to reduce negative impacts first.”

What offsets are available?
Google “carbon offset providers” and you’ll find plenty in Canada and abroad. Some manage their own sustainable projects while others serve as brokers. If you prefer to shop Canadian, look carefully at the projects available: a Canadian vendor may be supporting ventures beyond our borders. The David Suzuki Foundation recommends projects that prioritize climate protection—renewable energy and energy efficiency—since they create a permanent climate benefit and support a green energy economy. Projects should also meet strong independent standards, such as The Gold Standard. Finally, make sure the projects are “additional,” meaning they would not have happened anyway.

What is the cost?
First, calculate your event’s emissions. To get credible numbers, and align with international protocols around calculations, leave this to your offset provider. Depending on the event, the typical cost to offset an attendee’s footprint is less than $20. Your organization can pay for the offsets; you can work the cost into the registration fee; you can find a sponsor for the offsets; or you can use a combination. For McKinley, mandatory offsets just make sense. “The meetings industry could collectively contribute $2 billion US toward investments in cleaner, renewable energy solutions.”

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