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In early November 2021, the United Nations Climate Change Conference took place in Glasgow, Scotland. The goal of the international event was to detail emission reduction targets to be implemented by member countries by 2030. Should this have been a Zoom meeting.
According to Forbes, 118 private jets brought VIP attendees to the Glasgow climate event. Personal jet travel is perhaps the definitive example of wasteful individual behavior. The conference spirit of global carbon emission reduction did not stop celebrities and heads of state from bypassing the huddled masses on commercial jets and flying individually. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson even flew back to London for dinner one night, attracting additional climate criticism.
Overall, private jets were estimated to emit 1,400 tons of carbon to transport passengers to this event. To put that into perspective, if the Earth’s equator was a paved road (24,901 miles long), one could drive a minivan (22 miles/gallon (mpg) average, 2,500 car miles/1 ton of carbon emissions) around the world and generate nearly 10 tons of carbon emissions (https://bit.ly/3F0WLR5).
That means you could drive a minivan around the world 140 times and still emit less carbon than the 118 jets that went to the Glasgow climate summit.
Forbes reports (https://bit.ly/3oU2cvN): “This criticism around private jets comes as new research shows the luxury lifestyles of the richest 1 percent could jeopardize targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. Per capita, the richest 80 million people in the world will account for 16 percent of total emissions globally by 2030, up from 13 percent in 1990.”
Unfortunately, travel arrangements were not the most frustrating part of the conference.
Once everyone settled in, they began discussing reduced carbon emission targets with a fuzzy set of numbers. A major underlying problem in these climate discussions is an accounting issue. There is an 8.5-billion-ton to 13.3-billion-ton carbon gap of unreported emissions.
Essentially, the actual emissions reported by each country add up to a number that is much lower than the measurable reality. Imagine if you went to dinner with a large group and everyone pitched in for their share of the meal. The amount of money in the pile would be about 23 percent lower than the bill, in this case.
Giacomo Grassi is a forest expert at the European Commission's Joint Research Center; he was the lead author in a Nature study published in April 2021 (https://go.nature.com/3DRt4AF). He argues that the “issue is two incompatible scientific approaches, with the countries’ individual experts using one technique and independent energy system modelers and carbon bookkeepers using another.”
The largest wildcard in carbon accounting is the definition of “managed lands” that can pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Nations such as Brazil have vast, forested lands that absorb carbon dioxide. The more forest land they cut down for livestock, the less they can subtract from their emissions total. Everyone seems to be using different calculations to come to this net number.
The Central African Republic claims they absorbed 1.8 billion tons of carbon in 2010 (https://wapo.st/3H2ag3V). Likely, their figures are way off because that would mean they could have absorbed all of the emissions from Russia that year. Russia is one of the five biggest carbon-emitting countries in the world. The Central African Republic is 27 times smaller than Russia by area. Algeria has not even updated its numbers in 21 years, so maybe no news is good news.
Catering to the 1 percent
At the end of a long day of negotiations, attendees could walk around some industry trade show booths of sorts. The U.K. government invited the car and engine manufacturer Rolls Royce to the event; it displayed technology it is developing to address carbon emissions (https://bit.ly/3F7KvOI). On the one hand, improving car and airplane energy efficiency is a great idea.
On the other hand, a manufacturer that caters primarily to the $500,000 sedan market does not cater to the general public. If they exhibited an affordable, 200-mpg engine that could drop into a 2002 Honda Accord, that could be significant. Instead, they showed off engines that could power private jets. Private jets are not helpful for sustainability targets.
Select VIPs were invited to an after-hours party at the Goal House. This former steel factory was turned into an “exclusive club space” that includes bilateral meeting rooms for CEOs and celebrities who couldn’t snag them inside the official venue (https://politi.co/3q23GmL). Meetings like this damage the transparency intended by the global summit and are another distraction from the goal.
The United Nations Climate Change Conference should absolutely take place. The 2030 carbon targets are vitally important; they should not just be a monolog about how the five biggest countries plan to move forward. The climate theater associated with these international summits is not necessary or helpful.
A positive outcome was the response from young attendees of the conference and protests.
Time quoted Joycelyn Longdon, a 24-year-old doctoral student and activist focused on climate justice education (https://bit.ly/3F2J3xq): “It’s really important that this conference isn’t just used as a basically PR event, which it currently seems like it is. Something that is different about Gen Z is that we’re not going to be placated by platitudes or things that are comfortable [for leaders to do]. We have this sort of tenacity to keep pushing and pushing and pushing for better.”
I hope future conferences will be less PR and more substance as younger generations come into government leadership roles.
VIPs attending and partying at these events seem to be the problem, not the solution. If the richest 1 percent of the world’s population are single-handedly responsible for emissions that blow past our carbon reduction targets, then the conference should have been a Zoom meeting.
Also, if Leonardo DiCaprio is willing to fly commercial to the event, so should other VIPs.
To see a timeline put together by Carbon Brief regarding which countries have historically been responsible for climate change, take a look at this video (https://bit.ly/3s4LSKB).