Trade Fair, Climate Fair, Fair Deal! The Importance of Climate Neutral Events
© Brian Jackson; lianez

Trade Fair, Climate Fair, Fair Deal! The Importance of Climate Neutral Events

By Apurva Gosalia - Sep 12, 2022

In the last week of August, a throng of lubricant, fuel, engineering and automotive specialists gathered at the annual UNITI Mineral Oil Technology Congress in Stuttgart, Germany, to discuss current and future developments in the lubricants industry and more.

Topics ranged from recent industry trends, research and practical applications. One of the pre-seminars – organized for the first time by BASF – focused on the industry’s sustainable future. An exhibition alongside the congress gave comprehensive information on new products and services. 

I attended the event and gave presentations on sustainability, climate change and decarbonization both at the BASF Pre-Seminar and the UNITI Congress.

However, the lively public discussion about sustainable business and carbon dioxide reduction has a blind spot: No one addressed the immense CO2 emissions of congresses like this one or similar conferences, trade fair events and exhibitions. 

The Hamburg-based B2B platform operator Visable and the Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Cologne have now taken a closer look at the topic as part of a joint study called “Trade fair industry – change of era or ‘back to normal’?”

The result is clear. The CObalance of international trade fairs and similar events is catastrophic. This is largely due to the immense amount of delegates’ air travel. Yet no one takes offense or even notice. There are currently no regulations for events to disclose their COemissions. 

“Organizing trade fairs and the associated travel of international visitors cause huge amounts of CO2. But no one is tackling the issue. We can’t afford that if we are serious about climate protection,” Visable’s CEO Peter F. Schmid said.

Mareike Müller from Macromedia University of Applied Sciences in Cologne also criticizes the current situation.

“Who is actually responsible for the resource-intensive travel activities of exhibitors and visitors in the CO2 balance? This question is the most important aspect for CO2 reduction, but there is a complete lack of transparency here!” 

One figure from the study illustrates the extent of the issue. The Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona has been balancing its CO2 emissions since 2011. According to Müller’s study, up to 90% of the event’s CO2 emissions are attributable to international travel by participants to and from the event, as well as their overnight stays. Mobility is, therefore, the decisive factor in the extremely poor CO2 balance of trade fair events. 

Looking at a specific trade show in Germany makes the problem even more tangible. Last week, from September 2-6, the Internationale Funkausstellung (IFA), a leading international trade show, took place in Berlin. By way of an example, Macromedia calculated the event’s CO2 emissions based on 2019 visitor numbers, the last event before the pandemic. They found that the flights of the 82,739 international visitors alone caused 110,000 metric tons of CO2. By comparison, that’s the same amount that 886,012 Germans – more than ten times the number of visitors – cause in the same period, based on annual per capita emissions of 9.7 tons of CO2 per German citizen, as of 2019. 

If the CO2 emissions from the IFA were calculated at the expense of Berlin, Berlin’s carbon footprint would increase by 24% during the IFA period.

“The CO2 footprint of the IFA is enormous. It is as if Berlin were to grow by the size of the German city Frankfurt for the duration of the trade show. That’s not the official way of calculating it, but it illustrates the problem,” Müller said.

The dimensions of the problem become even more dramatic when looking at the entire trade show industry in Germany. In 2019, there were about 3.2 million foreign visitors to German trade fairs. The study calculates they generate about 3 million tons of CO2 during their stay. That is almost twice as much as the entire DB Group – one of the world’s leading mobility and logistics companies, primarily consisting of the integrated German rail system – emits in rail, road, air and shipping traffic per year. 

“We assume that the average foreign trade show visitor spends five days in Germany, including travel to and from the event. In these five days, the comparatively few international trade show visitors emit as much CO2 through their travel activities alone as 22.6 million Germans in the same period,” Schmid explained.

Müller takes both the government and the trade fair industry to task. 

“So far, no one in politics has taken a serious look at the CO2 consumption of trade fairs. This must change. Framework conditions must be created for holistic, sustainable event concepts,” he said. “It is not enough to install solar panels on the roofs of the large exhibition halls in Germany and think that everything is fine. The trade fair industry as a whole must change.”

The study calls for the responsibility for CO2 accounting of travel activities at trade fairs to be clarified quickly. The organizers must make a clear commitment to climate protection and sustainability and act accordingly. This requires corresponding public attention for the topic.

The study sees a possible path toward sustainability in virtual or hybrid trade show models. Schmid is irritated, however, by the reticence of trade show organizers when it comes to the transition to a digital age.

“I find it alarming that not even IFA, as a technology trade show, is trying to be a driver of the digital transformation of its industry. Haven’t enough industries slept through the digital transformation,” she said.

Müller points out that trade shows are fundamentally places where the focus is on the transfer and communication of information, both of which are undergoing massive changes as a result of digitization. 

“Who seriously believes that the deeply analog trade show model from the Middle Ages doesn’t have to adapt?” she said. 

This, she thinks, is an opportunity for trade show operators that if missed paints a bleak picture for the events industry’s future. 

I agree and think that the events industry should rethink its business model and digitization might certainly be an option, as hybrid models have less impact on the climate. However, it depends on the very nature and purpose of an event. 

The pandemic put some conferences in the global lubricants industry in the virtual meeting space. As ways of disseminating information, they worked. But like UNITI last week, there is no substitute for being there in person to meet, talk and network face-to-face. Sometimes, the best ideas and projects develop over a chat at breakfast, a coffee after lunch or a cocktail before dinner. This can never happen during a virtual event.

What needs to be done with physical events, though, is that we need to calculate their carbon footprints and make them carbon neutral. MWC in Barcelona was a carbon-neutral event in 2022 and together with my partner sustainability consultancy, I helped UNITI to calculate its 2022 congress’ carbon emissions. Together, we made it a climate-neutral event this year as well.


Apu Gosalia
Adviser, partner and honorary lecturer in sustainability strategy