Tens of thousands of people working in property descended on the gigantic Messe München exhibition centre this week for one of the biggest events in the industry calendar, Expo Real. Networking, making deals, listening to panel discussions and — judging by the event app’s suggestions for where to go — tasting some delicious Currywurst.
But gathering an industry as global as property in one place has a glaring downside. As governments scramble to contain carbon emissions and limit the rise of average global temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, international flights pose a serious challenge to that goal. The question is whether the industry can ever, or should ever, move away from hosting these mega-conferences.
“Purchasing a flight is the highest carbon purchase that you will make as an individual and possibly the highest carbon purchase decision that you’re making as a business,” says Richard Tarboton, director of strategic services at Carbon Credentials, a firm that advises businesses on how best to cut their carbon footprints. He says that over the next decade flying will become the biggest contributor to a business’s carbon footprint: “As buildings becomes zero carbon, what’s left behind is transport and travel. As vehicles move to electric vehicles, what’s left behind is flight travel.”
The average person in the UK has a carbon footprint of about 5.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. It’s decent by industrialised nation standards (the US pumps out more than 16 tonnes of carbon per person every year), but, according to the Deep Carbonisation Pathways Project, ensuring that global temperatures don’t rise by more than 2 C would involve cutting carbon footprints to about 1.7 tonnes per person by the middle of the century.
That also happens to be the carbon footprint, per passenger, for a return flight from London to New York.
If a London-based investor flew to MIPIM in Cannes, Expo in Munich and is planning to go to MIPIM Proptech in New York this year, their flight carbon footprint alone would be 2.3 tonnes (assuming they flew in economy class; business class passengers are less carbon efficient as they occupy more space). Taxis to the conferences centres would add another 14kg of carbon emissions to the itinerary.
Can we avoid it?
The challenge for property is that global conferences are integral to how the industry works. The benefits of face-to-face interaction, particularly for a growing firm that needs to meet as many potential clients or investors as it can, are hard to reproduce in any other setting.
Oli Farago, chief executive of proptech firm Coyote Software, says his team has benefited enormously from conferences. Future Proptech in London was the first conference where they had a stand and collected “a huge number of potential clients”. But Expo Real last year was the best example of how focused attendees are on doing business there.
“One of the meetings we had was with a German fund. It was literally sitting down with the principal and their lawyer to turn a contract back and forth. We finished that meeting by signing a contract,” Farago says.
As for the late-night trips to bars at conferences? Particularly in real estate, Farago says, that still plays an invaluable role in getting business. “That round you buy them at one o’clock at the hotel bar isn’t forgotten. It’s probably what means you get prioritised for that meeting when you get home, versus being in a stack of cards.”
And while video conferencing has improved, it hasn’t replaced face-to-face contact. “You can read body language in a way that you never quite can even on the best video conference set up,” says Farago. “You can really look into someone’s eyes and see how they’re reacting to what you say.”
It’s a point that Dan Hughes, founder of Alpha Property Insight and a frequent collaborator at property and proptech trade shows, agrees with. “At the heart of the future real estate sector will be human relationships and these will be built and maintained through a wide variety of different channels,” he says. “Large conferences will be a part of this.”
Speaking face-to-face at every meeting isn’t necessary anymore — which is good for environmental sustainability — but Hughes argues that conferences allow for building relationships with a lot of people efficiently.
Ronan Vaspart, managing director of MIPIM, said: “Sustainability is an important consideration in the organisation of MIPIM. The value of face-to-face meetings is at the heart of the conference, which serves as a meeting point for professionals globally: meeting international contacts in this context avoids taking multiple individual trips around the world. And so far, nothing replaces the human contact in high level business discussions.
“MIPIM has a role in shaping the agenda for the real estate industry and the theme for MIPIM 2020 is ‘The Future is Human’ which is a reference to environmental concerns as well as social sustainability and supporting diversity in the property industry.
“Additionally, steps have been taken to ensure that the events themselves are as sustainable as possible, with measures in place to minimise waste, and to promote the use of recycled materials – all carpets, for example, are 100% recycled. The Palais des Festivals itself holds an ISO 14001 certification for its environmental management system, and 94% of waste coming out of the venue during MIPIM is sorted and valued. MIPIM is looking at further positive steps, such as reducing the use of single-use plastics, and working more closely with local service providers.”
How to cut your carbon footprint when flying
Richard Tarboton at Carbon Credentials has a “three-stream” process for companies to follow:
- Smarter travel: Where possible, find alternative ways to travel or to go to meetings, whether that means opting for a train or holding a video conference
- Choose lower carbon airlines: Not all flights are equal. Tarboton recently bought a plane ticket to go to a conference in California and chose one that had 39% lower carbon emissions than the average flight on that route. There is still little transparency over flying emissions (Carbon Credentials is pushing for a mandatory carbon ratings system for flights) but sites like Skyscanner provide an estimate and will usually identify the most carbon efficient flights available.
- Play a role in accelerating low carbon flying advances: businesses should take an active role in using low carbon flights wherever possible in order to create greater demand for the aviation industry to respond to. “Until businesses that use flights actually value [low carbon emissions] as a characteristic, the airlines won’t move at a faster pace,” says Tarboton.
Carbon footprint websites like www.carbonfootprint.com or co2.myclimate.org calculate your flight’s emissions and give you the option to donate to charities that will offset that amount of carbon through environmental projects. A flight from London to Munich, for example, has a suggested donation of £9.
What can change?
If conferences are irreplaceable, the question becomes how to limit their environmental impact. For Farago and his team, it’s a question of corporate responsibility. For example, he says, Coyote could send a team of eight or 10 to MIPIM or Expo, but instead, it sends a team of five — the bare minimum needed. As technology advances, he says he could see that number falling even lower.
That environmental consciousness extends to decisions like using a New York based company for displays at a conference in New York instead of shipping those displays around the world.
Darryll Colthrust, an independent proptech strategist, offers another idea. He says one of the main reasons he goes to conferences is to understand the latest developments in the industry and attend workshops or panel discussions. These could be replicated by “federating the presentation”, effectively setting up multiple locations where a conference happens at the same time with feeds to the main event. A local moderator who knows the material could answer questions, feed questions to the speaker or facilitate post-panel discussions.
“It’s the discussions that happen or the questions that occur, those are the things that people feed off,” says Colthrust. “If you’re able to do that in a dedicated space that has a window into the conference, people could have those discussions. They could still have a social element in those dedicated spaces.”
He suggests that responsibility for making and attending these events lies at every level of a business: from personal awareness, to company policies limiting carbon footprints and industry-wide discussion. Carbon Credentials’ Richard Tarboton meanwhile argues that, ideally, conferences could only permit low-carbon flights at their events, though in practice that decision will fall on the individual and the business.
At Expo Real, Klaus Dittrich, chairman and chief executive of Messe München, says the idea of virtual trade fairs has been discussed but has not materialised — so far. But he adds: “We have to adapt new digital services and business models in our trade show organisation.”
He calls the exhibition centre a “modern, environment-friendly fairground” with geothermal energy, solar roofs and low-consumption LED lighting. Transport links are sustainable and include charging stations for electric vehicles, making the conference itself relatively sustainable even if flying there is not. Dittrich also points out the presence of bodies like the German Sustainable Building Council at the show as a sign of the industry engaging with the issue.
If these changes continue — smaller teams fly out to more sustainable conferences and more content is made available remotely — the way attendees view conferences will change. Farago suggests the future of conferences could be even more focused on what he saw at Expo Real last year: people with problems colliding with people with solutions in a mutual effort to make deals happen.
Dinners and hotel bars will likely always feature in real estate, but companies will have to take a serious look at where their priorities lie and where they can streamline their participation. After all, the stakes don’t get much higher than this. It’s a question of the planet’s future.
Why your carbon footprint matters
At current emission rates, the world will hit its “carbon budget” — the amount of CO2 we can emit and still limit rising temperatures to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels — within a decade. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report last October outlining the evidence for and the likely impact of rising temperatures. Its findings included:
- several hundred million fewer people would face poverty through climate-related risks by 2050 if temperature rises were limited from 2 C to 1.5 C
- 13% of land is projected to undergo a change of ecosystems if temperatures rise 2 C
- areas such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and Central and South America are particularly susceptible to a fall in major crop yields like maize, rice and wheat
- although it varies massively from region to region, water scarcity would affect 50% fewer people if global warming were limited to 1.5 C rather than 2 C
- disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, some indigenous people and communities dependent on agricultural or coastal livelihoods are disproportionately at risk of death and poverty through climate change