This year, the Consumer Electronics Show occupied a record 1.85 million square feet and included over 2,700 exhibitors. That’s a lot of people and resources moving through the Las Vegas area.
CES had a much-publicized green agenda this year, working with carbonfund.org to make the show so-called carbon-neutral and embracing sustainable practices. Their November release says, “Carbonfund.org will offset the approximately 20,000 tons of carbon associated with the International CES.” Did CES deliver on its agenda?
While official attendance figures haven’t yet been published, last year’s show had 143,695 attendees of whom 18.8% came from overseas. From that we can make some basic assumptions:
- That attendance grew commensurate with exhibit space to roughly 147,686 people. (This number may not be as high; CES says that as a result of “significant steps to ensure that only trade industry participants — as opposed to the public — are permitted to attend” there will have been a managed drop in attendance this year, but that it will still exceed 130,000 people.)
- That domestic travelers flew, on average, 3,040 miles round-trip from Chicago
- That international attendees flew, on average,10,494 miles round-trip from London.
Given the large number of attendees from Asia and anecdotal attendance numbers, these estimates are probably very conservative. And yet, according to Carbonfund.org’s own calculators, they represent over 655 million miles flown, and 132,575 tons of carbon. CES offset roughly 15% of this.
CES really only aimed to offset the carbon impact of exhibit space and hotel rooms. The organizers also point out that the average attendee to CES holds 11 business meetings, and that without the show, attendees would have to travel anyway to meet one another. “Because of the major carbon savings in eliminating separate airplane travel for such business trips,” observes the CEA’s Jason Oxman, “we did not include airplane trips of CES attendees in our carbon footprint calculation.”
Looking beyond just airplane travel, there’s also the impact of hundreds of thousands of attendees on the city’s infrastructure. Las Vegas, which receives only 4 inches of rainfall a year, is facing significant water supply challenges as it grows. A 2007 Fast Company article called Las Vegas “an environmental pileup in the making.” Proponents of the city’s expansion, however, point to a planned $2.5B pipeline to bring water in from Nevada that will stop nearby water sources from shrinking further.
Public transport fell short at CES. Long lines at the newly built monorail meant most attendees had to resort to taxis, shuttle busses, or hired limousines to get to and from the event. And with the size of CES, the conference was split between two buildings, requiring attendees to take shuttles between them.
The amount of waste generated by any convention is tremendous. Some vendors, like Nokia, tried hard to follow the green agenda by promoting electronics recycling services and eschewing printed collateral in favor of electronic materials. But others were less conscientious: BMW invited attendees to see their Formula One race cars revving clouds of smoke into the air in an adjacent parking lot. CEA, the organizers of CES itself, tried to use recycled materials and several exhibitors followed suit — for example, HP’s booth carpeting was made from recycled corn.
There were several tracks about the impact of consumer electronics, and vendors announcing green programs. But in the International exhibits where component manufacturers showed their wares, there was little mention of green materials or sustainability.
In all, CES made some effort and all the right noises, and convention attendance may be better than many separate trips. But the simple truth is that holding an international conference of this scale in the middle of the desert has a tremendous impact on the planet.