Are Sustainability Conferences Sustainable?

That was my thought as I sat down to a lovely banquet dinner to kick off the Low-Carbon Earth Summit (LCES) in Dalian China a couple of weeks ago. I was lucky enough to be on the keynote agenda at this conference and was sharing dinner with local dignitaries from Dalian and some sustainability luminaries from around the world.

My fellow keynoters hailed from Germany, Brazil, China, Switzerland, and the US. And one of the topics over dinner was the coming round of sustainability conferences, COP 17 in Durban, South Africa, next month; the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi in January; and Rio+20 in Brazil next June, all part of what the UN has dubbed its "Sustainable energy for all" initiative.

Which got me to thinking: Is it sustainable for all these experts to be flying around the world attending sustainability conferences? The "industry" of creating more sustainable business, home, and public environments should be a role model.

All of us involved in improving sustainability should take a look at our travel schedules and see if cutting one or more of those long-haul flights can be part of our "carbon diet" for the coming year.

And we should pay attention to technology-enabled alternatives, like the VERGE virtual conference run a few months ago by my friends at GreenBiz. Videoconferencing, webcasting, and other technologies can help habitual conference-goers like myself to separate participation in an event from travel to the event.

The need for some recalibration in my own travel plans was underlined at my next stop on my trip: Beijing. It was my first visit to this city, spurred by Forrester's acquisition earlier this year of Springboard Research. The chance to visit my colleagues in Forrester's new China office was an important part of the integration process for the two firms; we have had exchanges of visits in both directions going on since the deal was consummated in May of this year. And it was great to spend time with my new colleagues in China, who are researching developments in the ICT industry in China and across Asia.

My visit to Beijing was punctuated by something I had read and heard about but still could not quite believe when experiencing it in person: the smog. Beijing is incredibly polluted, just a blanket of brown that practically blocks out the sun.

In some respects, the city was similar to other Asian capitals I have visited like Seoul and Tokyo, but in those cities one can see more than a block or two out the hotel window! Even on my trip to see the Great Wall, some 60 kilometers out of the city center, the pall of pollution remained prominent.

So, I accept that I'm not going to get off of airplanes entirely any time soon, nor drive an all-electric vehicle, nor switch to a purely vegetarian diet. But I am going to reexamine my travel schedule and look harder for opportunities to participate in events virtually rather than physically.

And with my new colleagues in Beijing and Singapore (and longstanding ones in San Francisco and London for that matter), I am going to use our company videoconferencing systems more extensively. A "low-carbon earth" should start with the very people who are envisioning it.