The United Nations Climate Change Conference kicks off today in Copenhagen. Ministers, policy wonks, scientists and their various hangers-on — protesters, denialists, celebrities, lobbyists, NGOs and charities — are all descending on the Danish capital to secure the future of the planent for future generations. Or at least that’s the warm and fuzzy version. If the ten-day jamboree ends like the summits that have preceded it, despite the promises and “substantive agreements” that are negotiated, carbon emissions will continue to rise, developing countries will continue to be the earliest casuaities of climate change, and so on and so forth until polar bears are as mythical as unicorns and people living in coastal areas have evolved flippers.
Regardless of whether any real change comes out of Copenhagen, or the summit results in yet more empty promises and hot air, what cannot be denied is that there are a group of people who are going to do very well, thank you very much, out of the international talking shop: any business that in any way caters to the attendees. There are close to 20,000 delegates at Copenhagen, some of whom will be taking their staff. There are also untold numbers of protestors, journalists, bloggers and TV crews, all of whom will have needs. Anyone travelling to Copenhagen will need somewhere to stay, something to eat, a way of staying in touch with their base. Hotels, restaurants, bars and even the local prostitutes are all anticipating an end-of-year bonanza. What’s good for Copenhagen coffers, however, may not be so good for the climate.
To keep the VIP attendees in the manner to which they are accustomed, gas-guzzling limousines are having to be imported into the country from Germany and Sweden, while the airport is on alert to expect over a hundred extra private jets. Then there’s the carbon cost of all the flights taken to reach the conference, the cars ferrying people to and from their hotels, and all the extra fuel needed just to keep the whole show on the road, as Copenhagen copes with a sudden population increase equivalent to merging with a small town.
It does seem slightly hypocritical, doesn’t it? To save the planet and cut carbon emissions, tonnes of the stuff is going to be pumped out so that the great and good can get together and talk. What’s wrong with video conferencing, or email even? Granted, not every nation represented at the summit has the infrastructure needed, but they have embassies in countries which do. Is it really necessary for all those people to be in one place for the sake of a ten-day chat?
The standard answer is that there are certain things that absolutely must be done in person: you need to be able to look your contemporaries in the eye, to be able to backslap them when they make a significant concession, to join in with the applause when consensus is reached. But this runs counter to the aims of the conference; how can you save the planet with an orgy of excessive consumption? Especially when it will have to be repeated in a few months or years. It has already been decided that there will not be any binding commitments coming out of Copenhagen on the 18th December, so really, they don’t need to be meeting together right now. While I’m sure that important decisions will be made, I’m not convinced that they couldn’t have been made without this Danish junket.
Don’t get me wrong; I take climate change seriously, and this post isn’t a dig at environmentalists. The planet belongs to all of us and it’s obvious that something must be done. I just don’t know if rank hypocrisy is the best way to bring doubters round to the scientific consensus.