Is flying people half-way round the world really the best way to tackle climate change?

Events like COP are undoubtedly key in the global fight to tackle climate change. Bringing states together to ask the important questions about how best to tackle emissions and other issues surrounding the changing climate is paramount to the success of climate change mitigation. The presence of journalists, NGOs, and other actors to disseminate developments and put pressure on delegates is also key in ensuring positive results emerge from the meetings. However, there is a certain irony to the presence of thousands of delegates flown in from all around the world at a conference on climate change.

This is perhaps more visible this year due to Fiji bearing the presidency of COP23. Hosting a COP is enormously expensive and logistically this would be impossible for the small pacific nation. Luckily, the UN in Germany offered to host. Nonetheless this has meant a large number of Fijian and other pasifika delegates flying half a world away in order to attend, as well as individuals from many other far away places, e.g. the Americas. Research on the emissions of air travel is still inconclusive, and the relative efficiency of planes vs. cars is still a topic of heated debate amongst experts. Two things are apparent, however. The first is that taking a single return long-haul flight is a significant proportion of an individual’s yearly carbon footprint.

The second is that relative to a country’s total yearly emissions, sending people to a conference is a mere drop in the ocean. Perception and imagery are important, however. Much like the many criticisms of Al Gore, and Elon Musk’s hypocrisy in their climate activism while simultaneously jetting across the world in private planes, flying thousands of people across the globe in order to condemn people flying across the globe and emitting in other ways opens the door to criticism and ultimately, skepticism of climate change mitigation efforts. But do they really have any other option?

To us here in the Climate Action Studio, the alternatives are all too clear! Of the twelve of us attending COP23, there are only three of us who will actually be feet on the ground during that time. The remainder of our group are watching side-events as they’re being streamed, we’re talking to attendees via skype, and participating via the various COP23 hashtags on Twitter. This is not quite as good as actual attendance, nonetheless the amount of virtual participation is depressingly low. View counts on the side-event streams are often in the single digits, and a whole day’s worth of streams would only have view counts on the order of about 100. The UN do very little to advertise the avenues for virtual participation; primarily the UN Climate Change Studio YouTube Channel. The day’s side-events are broadcast there, but there is little signal from the UN about this fantastic resource.

However, during our interview with Celia Petty from Evidence for Development during the first week of COP, we were given some interesting new insights. Celia, who had traveled to Bonn from Reading by train told us that attending COP had saved her many airmiles. She had met with a whole host of contacts together, in the same place at the same time, taking one trip. Having a group of people in the same location at the same time meant that instead of each of them visiting one another individually, there was only one flight involved; or not even one in Celia’s case. This gave us a very different perspective and opened our minds to the idea of conferencing in this way actually being an emissions-efficient way of meeting.

On the whole then, perhaps it’s not all so bad. At the very least, a COP in Fiji would have meant virtually every non-pasifika states person having to cross one if not two major world oceans. While we could all take a few fewer flights, perhaps international conferences indeed save everyone a few plane trips. On the other hand, virtual participation should be heartily encouraged, and the UNFCCC’s efforts to broadcast the COP23 sessions is unfortunately outweighed by their radio silence when it comes to advertising them.