Saturday, December 12, 2009

40,548 Reasons Why We May Not Get a Climate Agreement That Works

By Dave Rochlin - originally posted on

Picture a fleet of 100,000 cars, idling for 2 straight weeks in the middle of Copenhagen. That's the estimated greenhouse gas emissions impact of The UN's Climate conference (aka COP-15), which starts today. 40,548 tons of CO2 to be exactly inexact.

I, like many of us, consider a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to be crucial to averting the massive humanitarian and ecological crisis that looms in our future. We simply can't keep cutting down trees, burning fossil fuels, and consuming mindlessly. We already consume 1.4 times more than the earth can sustain, and if everyone consumed like Americans, we would need 5.4 earths.

But the irony of the Copenhagen conference is that while delegates will be meeting to discuss measurement, compliance, reduced emissions, and dramatic change in our fossil fuel consumption, the carbon footprint of the conference itself highlights why COP-15's goals are elusive at best, and at worst potentially unreachable:

Token gestures vs real change

According the UN, "the main objective of the organisers is to minimise greenhouse gas emissions as far as possible", and the UN is happy to promote the 20% reduction in energy use at the conference center and elimination of bottled water and gift bags. While this is a good start, research by ClimatePath reveals that 90% or more of the impact of meeting and events is driven by travel related emissions. There are simply too many people traveling too far by airplane, and no real plan by the UN to reduce this. Bravo for including Cisco conferencing, but this is being promoted as a way to include interested parties that are unable to travel to COP-15, not as a serious alternative to in-person attendance. If travel is considered a non-reducible emission source for the conference, then our delegates should recognize that it might be considered a non-reducible area for the rest of us as well.

Measurement challenges
COP-15's footprint estimate was "based on the calculations from the Poznan Conference in December 2008 (COP-14) and extrapolated for 15,000 participants." Accurate measurement and reporting is a foundation issue, and allocating emissions targets is a key to a successful agreement. I can tell you with almost 100% certainty that this 'Guestimate' is low. There will be thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of additional "non official" attendees, and this does not count the millions participating in protests, rallies, and other events around the world as a part of the process. If we can't get accurate estimates from a 12 day conference, then can we really expect an accurate inventory from India, a country of over 1 Billion people?

My emissions are more important than your emissions
I mentioned in a previous blog that even some of the NGOs that are most active and engaged on the issue of climate change are jetsetting multiple writers to Denmark. A friend of mine who works for a large enviro-NGO is going to Copenhagen simply because she could get cheap tickets and the time off - and she is not alone. Whether to blog, because this is seen as "Copen-stock", or because a delegate's presence is 'vital', the idea that "living light" is a concept that applies to others is a sentiment that is pervasive not just at the talks, but around the globe, and stands in the way of a meaningful agreement.

Offsetting is the elephant in the room
Kudos to the UN for mitigating the emissions of the conference. How are they doing it? The will be offsetting, by replacing outdated brick kilns in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Quite interesting, considering that role of this type of mitigation is expected to be a hot topic at the conference. Most of the Western world has offshored manufacturing and agriculture, yet for many reasons the idea of doing this for carbon reduction and capture seems to be more problematic. I strongly support offsetting, particularly in support of projects which simultaneously improve lives.

What's at stake in the next two weeks is huge, but this all feels a bit like the US senate debating the high quality of US health care, while enjoying their own cushy plan.

Every hotel room in Copenhagen should contain a copy of the Aesop's fable The Mice in Council. We need to ask delegates "Who will bell the cat?", or--as the updated version from one of my favorite childhood cartoons (below) put it--we'll be left wondering why "After all was said and done, more was said than done."

Photo of traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Copyright: / CC BY-SA 2.0

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