The action zone and globe. Credit Karwai Tang UK Government; The action zone and globe. Credit Karwai Tang UK Government;

COP26 sustainability advisor, Glasgow

COP26: Setting a new global standard for sustainable events

Hosting a large-scale international event can be the equivalent of building and running a mini city. How do you bring together large numbers of people in a sustainable way?

At COP26, it was Arup’s job as sustainability advisors to the UK Government to embed sustainability at every stage of the event, from upfront planning all the way through to disassembly of the site.

Hosted by the UK Government in Glasgow, COP26 was the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties and the most important climate talks since the Paris Accord of 2016. Parties to the summit felt that an in-person event was essential for the international negotiations to be successful, but bringing people together comes at a carbon cost. 

To counter the climate effects of COPs, the UNFCC require them to be sustainably managed and carbon neutral. But what exactly does carbon neutral mean? Carbon accounting, like financial accounting, is not always black and white. This makes comparison across projects difficult, if not impossible. Our role was to ensure the carbon footprint for the summit was transparent and publicly accountable.

Project Summary

100% of on-site electricity consumption from renewable resources

100%of waste diverted from landfill through circular economy approach

85%of food sourced from Scotland for the Summit

A new global standard

Rigour and transparency were at the forefront of our efforts. COP26 wasn’t just about a single event – important though that was – it was also about leaving a positive legacy for the future, for future COPs and the events industry as a whole.

Image © Karwai Tang/ UK Government

Our first step was recommending that the Government target ISO 20121 certification, the international standard for event sustainability management systems, rather than other available environmental management standards. ISO 20121 requires consideration of social and economic outcomes, in addition to environmental, at all stages of the event and through the supply chain. 

The UK Government also agreed to pioneer PAS2060 (standard for carbon neutrality) for COP26, requiring a rigorous approach to declaring carbon neutrality. PAS2060 enabled us to create the most comprehensive carbon footprint ever calculated for a COP and commit to reporting publicly. This approach has paved the way for future events to take the broadest view of impacts, by having data to help target and realise greater emissions reductions.

Our methodology has also been a catalyst for changes within the events sector, spurring suppliers to innovate, backed by data and targets. As understanding improves, increasingly stakeholders will rightly ask, ‘what definition of carbon neutral are you using?’.

Making every action count

The key to event sustainability is starting early, never more so than with an event of the size and complexity of COP26. Nearly 40,000 delegates attended over two weeks, and a myriad of suppliers and partners were involved. To this end, we created a set of seven sustainability governing principles and ensured sustainability and carbon management was embedded from the outset. 

Image © Doug Peters/ UK Government

Guided by our governing principles, sustainability credentials were a primary driver for choosing suppliers. This attracted like-minded organisations with the enthusiasm and drive to find new ways of working to meet the ambitious targets, bringing a sustainability lens to all decision making and amplifying social and environmental benefits. This led to tangible benefits for the community, such as donations to local charities, projects and low-income families at the end of the summit, both reducing waste and adding social value. 

Working as a trusted advisor

As the world’s most significant summit on climate change, our number one priority for COP26 was to recommend measures that would avoid and reduce the impacts of hosting the event and seek improved outcomes, such as low carbon alternative energy sources, encouraging active travel and public transport, and introducing strategies to minimise materials use.

Some impacts, however, are unavoidable. To compensate for the unavoidable emissions, we developed an offsetting strategy to support geographically diverse projects and deliver Sustainable Development Goal co-benefits. In a radical step-change to previous COPs, the UK Government also engaged with world leaders on carbon offsetting of international flights. 

By measuring the event against the most stringent of standards, we helped deliver a truly sustainable summit, leaving an enduring legacy and setting a new global standard that has put the UK at the forefront of sustainable event planning.

Opening Ceremony COP26. Credit Karwai Tang UK Government Opening Ceremony COP26. Credit Karwai Tang UK Government
We worked as advisors to the UK Government to embed sustainability at every stage of the summit. © Karwai Tang/ UK Government