Climate negotiators: Do they practice what they preach?

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The World

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The efforts of delegates from a record 193 countries at the United Nations-sponsored climate change summit here took place before thousands of journalists and the eyes of the world. But what are the delegates doing when nobody is watching?

In almost every way, the Copenhagen talks took place on a grand scale, with some 45,000 accredited people participating; more than triple the next largest U.N. climate change negotiations. A demonstration calling for more progress at the talks drew at least 100,000 people. And the goals of the meeting were large-scale, as global leaders agreed to hold average temperature rises below 2 degrees Celsius.

But what about the small-scale aspects of confronting climate change from the very people who negotiated a deal?

Most delegates appeared pleasantly surprised when I asked them about their personal energy use and conservation habits. In the end, almost all of the more than two-dozen delegates I spoke with could describe at least some actions they were taking to help reduce their carbon footprint (no small feat for a crowd of people that spent most of the last year jetting around the globe (pre-Copenhagen meetings this year took place in Bali, Indonesia; Bangkok, Thailand; Barcelona, Spain; Bonn, Germany; L’Aquila, Italy; New York; Pittsburgh; and Venice, Italy).

“I ride a bike to work,” offered Brice Lalonde, France’s climate change ambassador and one of the process’ most veteran climate change negotiators. “I try to conserve energy when possible.”

Sergio Serra, Brazil’s top climate change official, said that when he is home he can do more than when he’s on the road.

“Unlike these conferences, I can turn the lights off when nobody is in the room, I can turn the air-conditioning off, I can recycle almost all of the home’s refuse,” he said.

Gusti Muhammad Hatta, Indonesia’s Minister of Environment, made a similar point.

“When I am traveling, I wear this coat and tie to try to look more respectable but when I’m home I’m in a light shirt and I don’t need air-conditioning,” he said. “When I travel for work there is a lot to worry about, but at home I live a more simple life.”

Grace Akumu, one of the co-heads of the Kenyan delegation in Copenhagen, said that the potential for taking environmentally friendly actions were diminished in a poor country like Kenya.

“We do not produce much emission in Kenya compared to most other countries,” Akumu said. “But I try to do my best when traveling. I try to tell people that as Kenya becomes richer we should not adopt the environmentally damaging habits of rich countries.”

With the delegates reporting the difficulty of containing their energy use while on the road, it’s fair to wonder about the CO2 footprint of the conference as a whole. According to U.N. statistics, it isn’t much.

“You have to figure that all the movement and consumption during the COP would have happened anyway, just that it would be happened for each person in their home country,” said Mark Keesh, who tracks this information for the U.N. Climate Change Secretariat. “What is additional is the process of getting here. You can figure about a ton and a half of CO2 per person. So that’s 60,000 or 70,000 tons of CO2. Sounds like a lot, but you can easily save that in a year by retrofitting a single old power plant.”

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