MWC 2019: Our planet is dying - is it time to ditch Mobile World Congress?

This year, my flight from London’s Stansted Airport to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress, plus two days of hour-and-a-half commutes through horrendous traffic between my hotel and the conference venue on a half-empty fume-belching diesel bus, generated at least 0.24 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

But it was probably more than that. In order for me to spend time in Barcelona this week, a vast, continent-spanning logistics operation was pressed into service, seamlessly and efficiently, but at such environmental cost! Technology companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on building materials for stands – some as big as a decent-sized family home – that otherwise would not have existed and will be torn down at the end of the week.

Then there’s my paper metro ticket, my receipts for lunch, the countless cardboard coffee cups, the plastics in my badge, the unwanted extra fabric lanyard (handed to me by Ericsson when I walked onto their stand covered in Huawei branding), the free pens and little presents tech vendors like to foist on the press corps, all consumed resources that did not need to be consumed.

Oh, I ate a lot of tapas, and I do love pa amb tomàquet – the Catalan speciality of bread smeared with tomatoes and often served with ham – so several pigs died for me, too. They were delicious.

I am a technology reporter at Mobile World Congress, and I am also an environmental villain.

Of course you can always make the argument that that plastic would have been used and consumed anyway, those pigs would still have died, Ryanair flight FR9810 would still have taken off without me, my hosts would still have rented a half empty coach for 12 journalists, and a driver with an apparently magnetic attraction to traffic jams.

So why am I bothered?

A carbon neutral MWC?

The GSMA – the mobile trade body that runs and organises the show – makes a virtue out of Mobile World Congress being a sustainable, carbon neutral event. It enables attendees to offset their carbon emissions by donating to green projects. It also provides a number of recommendations to enable attendees to minimise their environmental footprint, and it can boast a number of laudable achievements. The GSMA is taking sensible, rational steps, and I don’t want to suggest for a moment that they are not trying very hard.

But the GSMA’s actions don’t go far enough. There is no compulsion for attendees to offset their carbon emissions (and carbon offsetting is, in my opinion, pointless – the carbon was still emitted), it is not a requirement to take public transport to the venue, you can still print out your schedules rather than download the app, you don’t have to choose locally grown or sourced food options, and unless you’re coming from elsewhere in Spain, or possibly parts of France, you’re still going to fly.

The GSMA claims that Mobile World Congress was carbon neutral in 2015 and 2016. But was it? Really? When every variable is accounted for, I’d say that was highly, highly improbable.

What’s the point?

So I’d like us to at least begin to discuss the possibility that Mobile World Congress simply isn’t necessary, and as increasing speed, capacity, and capabilities of networks prove, travel for any reason other than personal growth and enrichment, that is to say, business travel, is becoming less necessary.

Okay, you’re right, Mobile World Congress is a fun couple of days. We meet, greet, catch up, learn, drink into the small hours…. These are good things (mostly) and their loss will be keenly felt. But nobody said the transition to a post-carbon economy would be without pain and loss. Nobody said that saving our home from catastrophic climate meltdown and ecological breakdown would not require radical actions.

And with temperatures back home in the UK hitting 20⁰ centigrade in February, ice melt speeding up by every measure, and the biosphere quite literally dying around us, I’d argue the time to take radical actions is now.

Which side are you on?

When you’re weighing up seven billion human lives and the preservation of a habitable planet for future generations, radical choices don’t seem so radical. The solutions to climate meltdown are right in front of us – we just need the popular will and the political backing to implement them. Would you rather your descendants lived in the utopian Star Trek future, or the barbaric Mad Max future?

So I’d like to ask you to ask yourself a few things. Why do we need Mobile World Congress? What social good does it serve? What ecological benefit does it bring? The GSMA talks so much about the power of social good and sustainability, and how mobile will solve these problems.

And yet, and yet, every February 100,000 people descend on Barcelona, snarling up the streets, choking the azure Mediterranean sky, and consuming, consuming, consuming.


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