‘Acting on sustainability takes commitment from everyone’ Melbourne’s push to net zero

Melbourne Skyfarm is set to transform MCEC's car park into an urban farm and event space.

Sustainability is no longer a buzz word – it is now the only way forward for the event sector as the world slowly emerges from Covid.

The “Net Zero Carbon Events” pledge was delivered by the Joint Meetings Industry Council at the recent UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, with 109 businesses in the events and tourism sectors pledging to achieve net zero by 2050.

Among the signatories was the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (MCEC), which has used the last two years to focus on a new sustainability strategy under the helm of sustainability manager Samantha Ferrier.

No stranger to sharpening its sustainability credentials, MCEC has a long history of partnerships with food charity OzHarvest and EarthCheck, receiving Gold certification since 2016.

Its latest initiative involved a group of leading Melbourne-based sustainability companies collaborating to transform MCEC’s rooftop car park into a thriving farm with sustainable and contemporary dining, education and event spaces.

Melbourne Skyfarm will grow over five tonnes of fresh produce per annum, with a large proportion of produce being donated to Melbourne food charities, as well as being used on the menu of the Melbourne Skyfarm cafe.

“It was quite unique in the opportunity that we had [to outline the strategy] was written during the lockdown period – a time in our business was potentially closed,” said Ferrier.

MCEC set about developing a new sustainability strategy by gathering together a cross selection of employees from across the business that had touchpoints with sustainability.

“We had around eight employees working on what are our business priorities in terms of sustainability, what kind of targets do we need to be working towards,” said Ferrier.

“We did lots and lots of research and got inspiration from organisations like the City of Melbourne and Victorian Government and used their strategies to set our targets as well as some federal strategies and associations we work with in the events industry.”

Ferrier said MCEC is happy to “piggy back” off other initiatives and stakeholders such as the City of Melbourne, but the bulk of the strategy is set around what MCEC’s field of control is.

“We acknowledged from the outset it is not something we would be able to do on our own,” she said.

“We rely on our customers and our suppliers and government partners to be able to execute our targets. That’s very much embedded into the strategy as well.”

MCEC Sustainability Manager Samantha Ferrier.

One of MCEC’s main targets is to reach net zero emissions by 2030.

“Like a lot of organisations we have a long way to go before we get there,” said Ferrier.

“At the moment we only track our scope 1 and scope 2 emissions so the biggest thing we need to do is understand what our scope 3 emissions (indirect) as a result of our supply chain and that is a really big piece of work to be able to understand what our full carbon footprint is before we can even work towards net zero.”

The bigger picture will see MCEC move towards renewable energy, reducing its reliance on fossil fuels, in addition to “being smarter in the way we use our building”.

“There are lots of other projects that will feed into that including reducing our food waste, providing more low carbon meals and things that are more specific to our events,” said Ferrier.

Ferrier concedes that Australia needs to raise the bar “because we are bringing people from all over the world and by default that creates a huge carbon footprint”.

“A lot of those aspects [flights and accommodation] are outside of our control,” she said. “In saying that, we are bringing people from the other side of the world so it is our responsibility to make sure that the carbon footprint associated with every single delegate is considered and accounted for.”

Larger clients and organisers also often have their own sustainability targets, which need to be met by the venue.

“We often get customers coming to us saying ‘we have chosen MCEC because of your sustainability credentials and they align with what we to do’,” Ferrier said.

“We are going to see a lot more of that in the future. It’s always been on the radar for a lot of larger customers but now it is going to become much more of an expectation from a venue perspective.”

Julia Swanson, CEO at Melbourne Convention Bureau, says acting on sustainability takes commitment from everyone.

In May 2021, the Victorian State Government unveiled its Climate Change Strategy keeping the state on track to meet its target of net zero emissions by 2050.

At the heart of the plan are targets to reduce emissions by 28-33 per cent by 2025 and 45-50 per cent by 2030.

“Victoria is already taking world-leading action to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, as the first Australian state and one of the first jurisdictions in the world to legislate net zero emissions by 2050, with five-yearly targets to make sure we get there,” said Melbourne Convention Bureau (MCB) chief executive Julia Swanson.

“Victoria has already cut its emissions by 24.8 per cent based on 2005 levels, achieving our 2020 emissions reduction target two years early. We are also on track to meet our 2025 target.”

Swanson says many international associations want to host events in line with recognised sustainability standards.

“We recognise that Melbourne has an unparalleled opportunity to embrace, promote and leverage our industry’s initiatives, efforts and programs focused on sustainability and ensure it is at the forefront of our clients minds when hosting events in our city,” she said.

“Acting on sustainability takes commitment from everyone – government, the tourism and events industry, our association clients and delegates – but together we can achieve great things with a combination of big and small steps.”

Melbourne cemented its number one position as a sustainable city in the Asia-Pacific region for business events in the Global Destination Sustainability Index (GDS-Index).

Ranked number 11 in the world overall, Melbourne and MCB’s sustainability performance was evaluated based on the city environmental strategy and infrastructure, city social sustainability performance, industry supplier support and MCB strategy and initiatives.

“The GDS-Index is a collaborative business initiative that aims to promote the sustainable growth of international meeting destinations, highlighting best practices and responsible business tourism,” said Swanson.

“It helps destinations, event planners and business events suppliers to drive and recognise sustainable practices in the business events industry.

“It has provided us with opportunities and inspiration that has helped position Melbourne as a global sustainability leader.”

MCB has also introduced a new Social Outcomes Strategy, encouraging event owners to incorporate specialised legacy concepts focused on delivering wider social and economic outcomes when hosting their events in Melbourne.

This includes now capturing information on sustainability initiatives, programs and actions for clients’ events in Melbourne as part of their sponsorship agreements.

“Sustainability is not just about the environmental and climate change impacts,” said Swanson.

“It is far reaching across gender equality, diversity, inclusivity and accessibility to supporting local communities and partnerships for the betterment of societies, as well as innovation for the future generations.

“There is always scope for learning, growth and improvement and I’m proud of the efforts the people, businesses and industry across our state are making in this space.”