How Much Hot Air do the UN Climate Treaty Talks Produce?

Diplomats fly, drive or otherwise fling themselves hundreds or thousands of miles to United Nations climate treaty talks every year. As they converge on Warsaw this week, with attendant nongovernmental organizations and journalists, it’s worth considering just how much pollution they create in the name of cutting pollution.

``In the grand scheme of things, the emissions of the conference aren’t very big,'' said Alden Meyer, director of policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. ``But as a symbolic gesture, it's important to offset them.''

The Polish organizers said they don't have a calculation for the carbon footprint of the conference, which ends Nov. 22. Their eco-friendly activities include recycling all banners into bags, donating conference furniture to charity and planting 9,000 trees. The delegates also enjoy free use of public transport, rather than using shuttle buses provided by the organizers.

The Polish government pledged to offset the emissions when the city of Poznan hosted the event, in 2008. They calculated the footprint before the event at 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide, assuming 8,000 delegates (9,200 actually went that year). That estimate might provide a guide for this year's emissions, given we're in the same country.

Compare with what other nations have done.

Some 10,829 people descended on Bali in 2007 for the 13th annual talks, known as the Conference of the Parties, or COP [Click here for more on UN climate alphabet soup].

The UN said then that each delegate’s travel produced on average 4.07 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That means Bali’s 10,828 guests were responsible for about 44,000 tons. To make amends with the atmosphere, the Indonesian hosts said they would plant 79 million trees to offset the entire conference's emissions -- or almost 8,778 times more trees than the Poles are committing to for this year.

For reference, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a typical U.S. car emits about 5.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, according to a 2011 document. So a conference that size emits the same as 8,627 U.S. cars in a year, or 224,000 cars over two weeks.

The estimated carbon footprints of COP meetings vary more than the delegate counts and geographic location would suggest, so calculation methods may not be uniform.

Mexico hosted COP16 in Cancun in 2010 and put out a press release saying it “neutralized” conference-related emissions by funding, through a voluntary carbon offset program, ``peasants dedicated to conservation and reforestation in the states of Chiapas and Oaxaca.'' The government also helped hotels avoid emissions through efficiency meaures and used biodiesel in its shuttle buses.

About 12,500 people attended the COP17 event in Durban the next year. South Africa published a lengthy document about their "greening programme," which includes providing bikes for participants and the police, restoring ecosystems nearby to help capture carbon and recycling.

At COP18 in Doha last year, the organizers said that the event was being monitored and offset, and that a carbon footprint report would be published afterwards. They didn’t respond to two post-conference inquiries, and GreenGulf Inc., the Doha-based adviser charged with calculating the footprint, didn’t respond either.

AT the 2009 talks in Copenhagen (COP15), nations tried and failed to reach a new global deal that would bind all nations to cut emissions. There were 27,294 attendees, including U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. The enormous attendance caused the event’s footprint to balloon to an estimated 40,500 tons.

To offset the summit, Denmark forked out 5 million kroner (at the time, $1 million) to pay for a project in Bangladesh that reduced emissions from the brick-making industry. Twenty new kilns were planned, to reduce emissions by a combined 100,000 tons a year. That's enough to compensate for more than two COPs of that size, per year.

So, from that perspective, maybe there's no need for the Poles to do anything at all.

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