Like many offices around the world, we have been facing the need to adapt our work, our plans and expectations for the year to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have quickly adjusted: meetings via video call quickly feel normal, Slack keeps the team up-to-date and we have made use of the multiple online meetings, webinars and discussions happening between organisations all around the world to encourage continual learning and networking.
However, if there is one thing that required a greater shift in mind-set it was our Annual General Meeting (AGM) which had to transform from a 2-day long, in-person meeting to a 2-hour virtual conference call. Our AGM is the one opportunity a year we can bring together our members to catch-up, maintain and grow relationships and share the latest updates on CSO accountability. Yet, despite the lack of face-to-face interaction, this was our highest-attended AGM, with participants from a greater variety of countries, leading to more diversity and experiences being brought to the table.
To mitigate the lack of face-to-face interaction, the Accountable Now Secretariat organised an optional virtual networking session to allow participants to have informal conversations with peers, followed by two hours of presentations and breakout group discussions, to create a space for learning and exchange. Through this, we learnt what is possible to do through fully utilising video conferencing tools. And the benefit? We produced a far less carbon-intensive meeting, whilst being able to host insightful discussions with members based all around the world. The flights, the catering, the hotel rooms were all taken away as we called together 50+ accountability enthusiasts for this 2-hour Zoom call.
This raised a major question within our organisation: can we do more to lessen the impact our activities have on the environment by moving our AGM online every two years?
Last year we reviewed and updated our environmental policy to create a bolder, more decisive policy that aims to fully address those areas of work that we can change to lessen impact upon the environment. Just as our policy evolved and adapted to the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to push us to adapt further to this new context. With our AGM being one of our most carbon-intensive activities, this year proved we can successfully work with new formats and take a first step towards setting a new trend where virtual AGM’s occur once every two years.
There are environmental costs to online and digital activities: the International Energy Agency estimates that the amount of power needed to serve the world’s demand for data storage and processing in 2028 will be equivalent to the energy needs of the United States, and zero-carbon operations by cloud-computing services and tech companies are not (yet) the norm. The impact of constantly relying on the internet and web-based services are currently far from being harmless, although tech giants are relying more and more on clean energy sources . Nonetheless, is this environmental impact as costly as flying in people from all around the world for a two-day meeting?
Let’s take a look at the numbers…
Flights and stays at hotels are two of the most carbon-intensive activities that make our in-person AGM possible. To understand the extent of the carbon footprint taken to host these meetings, we can do a quick thought-experiment. Let’s assume that one representative from each member organisation attends our AGM (this is normally the case, but we do invite externals and guest-speakers and some member organisations have two or more representatives attending).
We have 26 members based in the UK (15), Spain (1), Taiwan (1), New Zealand (1), Australia (1), Austria (2), the Netherlands (1), Greece (1), Chile (1) and Switzerland (2) and including three Accountable Now staff from Germany. Our previous AGM’s have taken place in London, so for this thought experiment, let’s set our AGM there with return flights taken by each representative. The flights to London would have had a C02 usage (i.e. carbon footprint) of:
|C02 per passenger||C02 total|
|Germany (AN Staff)||468 kg||1404 kg|
|Spain||443 kg||443 kg|
|Taiwan||5161 kg||5161 kg|
|New Zealand||11, 814 kg||11, 814 kg|
|Australia||10,490 kg||10, 490 kg|
|The Netherlands||87 kg||87 kg|
|Greece||805 kg||805 kg|
|Chile||6618 kg||6618 kg|
|Switzerland||228 kg||456 kg|
|Total||–||38, 293 kg (42,21 tons)
Taking into consideration the hotels being booked and stayed in, the Hotel Carbon Measurement Industry has set a carbon footprint benchmark for hotel rooms at 31.1 kg per night. With our members, that’s nearly 1680 kg for the two nights needed for our two-day AGM. With heating, air conditioning, water consumption for food, showers and cleaning of bed sheets and towels, a stay at a hotel is not easy to make carbon-neutral.
Together, these organisational activities are contributing nearly 40, 000 kg C02. Numbers do not always mean much, so to help with understanding what 40, 000 kg C02 is, within Europe, the average carbon footprint per person was 6350 kg per year. Our two-day long AGM already costs over six times this amount and that is not taking into account transport within the city, transport to and from the airport, catering or the carbon needed to host extra participants such as additional staff from our members, externals and our Board members.
But what about the impact of conference calling? Calculating digital carbon footprint is not as simple. With evolving technologies, equipment and energy efficiency the landscape is quickly changing, and there is not yet any official data on the level of Zoom’s (the video conferencing platform we are mostly all familiar with by now) digital carbon footprint. We can however approximate the following: the data usage of a high quality group Zoom call is 810 MB per hour. For a 2 hour call that is 1.6 gigabyte per person. With at least 50 participants in this year’s virtual AGM and 1.6 gigabyte per participant used across the 2 hour call, that is a total of 80 gigabytes used for the virtual AGM. Calculations on how much of a carbon footprint is used per gigabyte is also not as well-evolved as with calculating flights or energy consumption. Through their research for calculating the carbon footprint of websites, wholegraindigital.com have estimated that for every GB transferred, it takes 282g C02. Therefore, we are looking at a carbon footprint of 22,5 KG for our virtual AGM.
Our face-to-face AGM produces around 1700 times more CO2 than the virtual one: about the proportional difference between the average weight of an African elephant and that of a rabbit!
Feedback is central to the work that we do with our members and through collecting feedback in our evaluation survey after the virtual AGM it was rewarding to see the positive responses given by participants. Over 20% were very satisfied and over 70% satisfied with our virtual AGM. This has helped further confirm the possibility to move towards virtual conferencing for our AGM in the future, knowing that our members and partners are happy with this format. There are of course areas we can improve, such as the time given to discussions, which in this year’s shortly-timed AGM may not have allowed for too deep conversations to be made and any future virtual meetings will aim to improve and build on this feedback.
This pandemic and the consequential economic and social crises are worrying and the past months of lockdown have had disastrous effects upon people, business and communities whilst governments attempt to contain the virus. However, the climate crisis is inherently linked to this pandemic and its not being put on pause whilst governments focus their efforts on recovering economies. Discourse around how behaviours and patterns need to and can change to become more sustainable and environmentally conscious has been growing, and the disruptive nature of this pandemic can give way for sustainable behaviours to become the norm. Organisations which so often rely on travel for conferences and workshops should use this disruptive time as an opportunity to seek change in the usual way of doing things.
We are not committing to completely stop our in-person AGMs or meetings. We fully recognise the importance of face-to-face contact and the dynamic, interesting and worthwhile experiences that can come from this. However, we do need to acknowledge the impact that our activities have on the environment. We have seen how much of a carbon footprint our small AGM has each year. Now imagine if all organisations made the same assessment and decided to move online just occasionally. Habits can and must change, and this situation is accelerating the inevitable. Even though the virtual world cannot replace the “real” one, it can get pretty close.
 Carbon calculator tool https://www.atmosfair.de/en/offset/flight/
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