The Carbon Footprint Of Climate Change Delegates

After Copenhagen, there was Bonn. Now there's Tianjin, China. Next month, there will be Cancun, Mexico. It seems the United Nations is continually holding climate change meetings that require thousands of delegates to fly all over the world in an effort to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions. But it's a big question whether any of these talks will produce a concrete result. If not, there's always next year's big meeting in South Africa. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks with Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, about the carbon footprint of this rolling series of international meetings, proposals to reduce it, and what is actually supposed to be taking place.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

Climate talks underway this week in China have failed, so far, to make much progress. That's according to the chief U.S. negotiator, Jonathan Pershing, who says, and I quote, "there is less agreement than one might have hoped to find."

MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

Unfortunately, this would seem to fit a pattern. There was the bitter summit last year in Copenhagen, which produced only a vague and non-binding treaty. Copenhagen was followed by another gathering this year in Germany, and this week's China talks are set up for next month's U.N. climate summit in Cancun, Mexico, which also apparently is not expected to produce any real action.

Nonetheless, thousands of diplomats fly in from all over the world for these gatherings, a phenomenon one observer likened to a giant traveling circus.

Well, one veteran of these summits is Alden Meyer. He's director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists. Welcome.

ALDEN MEYER: Glad to be with you.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, I'm going to start with a bit of a snarky question, but I have to ask: Is there any way of measuring how much energy is being consumed flying these delegates around the world every few months to talk about climate change?

MEYER: Well, yeah, I mean, you can measure. Obviously, the most energy is used in the international travel. People do come from all over the world. So obviously, someone who's flying from Europe to China is expending a lot more energy than someone that's coming in from Japan or Thailand. So you'd have to add it all up. But it's a lot of energy and a lot of carbon.

LOUISE KELLY: And there's something like 170 countries represented in China this week. That's thousands and thousands of people flying in.

MEYER: Yeah, I believe the total count that I've heard for this meeting in Tianjin, which is a rather small meeting by these standards, is 3,000 people.

LOUISE KELLY: I gather there is a move to find some sort of permanent location for these talks so that they were not being moved to a new location, a new country every year.

MEYER: Well, there's been a suggestion by some that maybe you should do what we do with the World Trade Organization, which has a permanent negotiating venue in Geneva, Switzerland, at the U.N. headquarters there. Negotiators spend much of their life in Geneva, in meetings, in negotiating sessions. So there's not a lot of back-and-forth travel.

The problem, of course, is that we're not at the stage where you have an up- and-running regime like the WTO, where people could negotiate around the clock, 24/7 around the whole year. So it would be a lot of wasted time and energy.

The basic problem is we don't have the political will in many of the key countries, not only the U.S. but some of the other major countries as well, to cut the kind of ambitious, binding deal that the science tells us we need to get ahead of this problem.

LOUISE KELLY: Well, can you tell us, I know these are big, complex issues, but in a nutshell, what are the major obstacles to producing some sort of binding agreement?

MEYER: Well, I think the major obstacles, there's a couple. First of all, there's a perception among many policymakers that doing something of this problem is expensive and requires sacrificing economic growth. The reality is that's not true. But the dominant paradigm is that if you're going to cut back on energy use, that's going to restrain your economy. And that's true whether you're in China, the U.S. or other countries. So that's one obstacle.

The other is fairness and equity. There's a sense among the developing countries, the major developing countries like China, India, Brazil, South Africa, that countries like the U.S., Japan and Europe haven't done enough to cut our own emissions, given that we built our economies on the industrial revolution and are responsible for the bulk of the greenhouse gases.

LOUISE KELLY: Mm-hmm.

MEYER: From the industrialized countries, they say, well, that may be true, but unless you do more - you being the major developing countries - we can't solve this problem. They're both right, but the problem is they talk past each other, and they can't get into a constructive dialogue about a win-win strategy to get beyond that roadblock.

LOUISE KELLY: Is there any sense of urgency to actually producing binding agreements at these U.N. talks?

MEYER: Well, there was some urgency building up to Copenhagen because it was a pretty high-level summit. You had a number of heads of state, including President Obama.

The good news is it did get a number of the countries, including the U.S. and China, to put their pledges on the table of what they were willing to do. The bad news, of course, is that you can't have heads of state doing the technical negotiations, and as we saw in Copenhagen, the whole process basically came crashing down around them the last few days there.

Now, I think what they're looking for in Cancun is to do something a little more incremental, not to get the whole deal done but to get some trust-building blocks in place. That would actually be a step forward and I think help rebuild the credibility of the U.N. process.

If they can't get even that, I think this process is in real trouble.

LOUISE KELLY: Thanks very much.

MEYER: Sure.

LOUISE KELLY: That's Alden Meyer. He's director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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