Climate change is a well-debated topic of our time and the sense of urgency to reach agreements on how to curb this change has heightened over the last two decades. Over this time span, governments around the world have been trying to reach consensus on a legal mechanism to reduce green house gas emissions. However, the carbon footprints of these same conferences are very large and are often the equivalent to the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of a small town for a year (2). The question being posed in this paper is, can the benefits of large-scale climate conferences outweigh the resultant carbon footprints? The answer to this can be found by analysing the outcomes of these conferences. If a legally-binding contract to reduce emissions significantly in the future is the conclusion, then these meetings, and their carbon footprints, may be justified. However, a lack of progress and seemingly meaningless quarrels has historically dominated these negotiations.
Climate change has, and continues to be a pertinent environmental issue that has implications on mankind’s daily life. Increased occurrences of extreme weather events have heightened concerns in terms of changing our daily habits. The need for reduced energy usage in households, through extinguishing unnecessary power outlets and lights, shorter showers and baths, and the recycling of waste products, is now more pronounced. One of the largest contributors to climate change is the ever increasing population size and its matched increase in demand for resources, which ultimately returns to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases (GHG) (3). In this way, the delicate balance of the carbon cycle is altered by changing many of the solid or stored carbon sources embedded in the earth, such as oil, into gaseous forms of carbon, such as CO2. This increase in CO2 and other GHGs is the driver of climate change. This paper assesses the benefits of climate change negotiations against their failures.
Climate change: Hazy outlook
GHG emissions can be decreased by either reducing output volumes of these gasses or increasing the uptake of these gasses by the planet (4). To decrease output rates, it is necessary to reduce the output per person and limit wasteful practices such as discarding millions of tons of foodstuffs each year. Often these decreases can be made by a population’s change in mindset from one of overconsumption to a more environmentally-conscious state. On the other hand, to increase uptake rates, it is necessary to restore natural environments that have been destroyed. Natural, unspoiled lands are capable of storing large amounts of carbon in solid forms; wherefrom they originated before man released them into the atmosphere through combustion (5). This process of storing carbon in flora is known as carbon sequestration (6). The following section discusses the carbon footprint resulting from the hosting of conferences intended to debate matters around curbing the increased incidences of climate change.
Carbon footprints of conferences
Regional and global meetings are often held for authorities to discuss the future of climate change and how best to manage it. Well-known examples of global meetings are the Conference of the Parties (COP) negotiations. These meetings are annual conferences held for the signatory countries to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) to discuss methods to reduce and stabilise GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, to protect the planet’s future (7). COP17, the latest in the series of negotiations, was held in Durban from 28 November to 11 December 2011 and was attended by representatives from 194 countries (8). Despite the large distances travelled by many of the leaders in combating climate change, some say that very little was accomplished at this meeting (9). This is due to the fact that the meeting did not produce a legally-binding contract to force countries to reduce their carbon emissions. UNFCCC COP meetings have generally expended large amounts of energy over the years, and have contributed to creating considerable carbon footprints brought about by air transport emissions, large conference venue infrastructures, as well as the sheer amounts of food produced for these meetings which typically go on for approximately two weeks. Seeing as these conferences are convened with the sole intention of putting together action items for countries to curb their emissions, can the large expenditure of energy and the large carbon footprint of an event like this be justified?
COP meetings are known to have large carbon footprints. For example, approximately 20 000 representatives from around the world attended the COP17 conference with nearly 30 000 people involved in putting the conference together in the form of hosts and catering (10). This equates to a carbon footprint of 15 000 - 76 900 metric tons of CO2 depending on the source of information (11). Most of these emissions are produced by the high release of planes used to transport these delegates from around the world (12). The release of carbon dioxide from transport and freight vehicles, especially planes, is increasing faster than the population size in many developed countries, and is therefore a large contributor to GHG emissions (13).
The previous meeting, COP16 in Cancun, Mexico, was estimated to have a carbon footprint of 25 000 tons of CO2 (14); while the preceding one, COP15, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, was estimated to have a footprint of 46 200 tons of CO2 (15) with the largest contributor to these also being the flights to and from the venue (16). Taking into account that there have been 17 COP meetings in the past, the combined carbon footprint for all the conferences must be enormous.
Benefits of climate conferences
There are numerous benefits to having regional and global climate meetings. The main aim of the COP meetings is to establish a binding agreement among parties for a long-term, sustainable solution to climate change (17). Leaders in climate change issues, government representatives and decision-makers are brought together, as well as civil society and NGOs, among others, to share ideas and to discuss a way forward in resolving climate change issues (18). Furthermore, meetings like these allow countries to develop cooperative projects with other countries, such as the cooperative project between China and South Africa, to convert a coal-fired brick factory to natural gas in Johannesburg (19). Another benefit of these conferences is that they facilitate the cooperation of countries to focus on global climate change and share ideas on what the best practice to reduce emissions is. For example, the aim of the Green Climate Fund is to provide funding to developing countries that do not have the adequate resources or infrastructure to invest in clean technologies (20). Most of the natural vegetation that exists is found in developing countries and this needs to be conserved because natural environments are known to store carbon and prevent it from entering the atmosphere (21).
The carbon footprint of these large meetings has not gone unnoticed. The United Nations (UN) has begun to offset these emissions by providing certain areas with clean energy or by restoring previously damaged environments. For example, the carbon offsets for COP16 included the installation of a wind turbine and solar panels to create clean energy, the transport used for the conference was powered by biofuels, regular recycling points at the conference and by planting and protecting trees (22). With regard to COP17, the Community Ecosystem Based Adaptation (CEBA) initiative was formed to offset the carbon footprint of the conference by restoring natural lands that have been damaged (23). The first project on the list is to restore and reforest the uMbilo River catchment in Durban. CEBA credits were voluntarily bought at the conference and will contribute to this project (24). These offsets to the unavoidable carbon emissions are essential to balance the costs and benefits of hosting climate talks, and if every emission - conference-related and otherwise - was avoided or offset in full, then there would be no surplus in emissions and the carbon levels would remain constant.
Although climate-related conferences are carbon footprint-heavy and damaging to the environment, they do provide a large amount of wealth in the form of knowledge and the progression of ideas and solutions that may slow or even solve the problem of climate change in the future. However, mere discussions and hidden agendas will not stop or reverse climate change. Actions are required and only once an agreement or a treaty can be reached whereby all states are represented and included in a legally-binding framework to counteract climate change by reducing emissions, will the large carbon footprints of these conferences be justified.
- Wayne Brazier, Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit (firstname.lastname@example.org). This discussion paper is republished here with permission from Consultancy Africa Intelligence (CAI), a South African-based research and strategy firm with a focus on social, health, political and economic trends and developments in Africa. For more information, see www.consultancyafrica.com
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