Carbon Footprint of UN Conference

Much of the blame for carbon dioxide emissions gets put on cars. However if you really want to warm the planet fast and you believe the current scientific consensus that CO2 emissions are to blame, then hop on board an international flight. This is the reason why I can’t get past the irony of holding a UN sponsored conference on climate change in one of the most remote places on the planet, about as far from UN headquarters as you can go and still get a tan without drowning.

The distance between New York City and Bali, Indonesia is 10163 miles (16356 km) (8832 nautical miles). The US is sending 60 delegates - so we’ll assume that they are all based at UN headquarters in NYC. We’ll also assume that they aren’t packed in coach and that they are flying Business Class on a non-stop flight that is 80% full.

Here’s a nifty calculator that does all the calculations based on latitude and longitude.

For this single trip, each participant from New York City will use 1,731 kg of fuel, producing 5,282 kg of CO2 with the warming effect of 16,146 kg.

That’s each participant leaving New York City. Multiplying that result by 60, the American delegation alone is responsible for 103,860 kg of fuel, producing 316,920 kg of CO2 with the warming effect of 968,720 kg.

But 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference and so far I’ve been unable to find any type of geographic breakdown. So I’m going to make some assumptions:

4,000 participants from New York – that’s where UN headquarters is.
1,000 from Los Angeles – for press, Hollywood UN groupies, and UN personnel stationed at west coast consulates.
3,000 from Rome – for European NGO, UN and official contingents
1,000 from Hong Kong – that will cover participants and press from Japan, China and SE Asia
1,000 from Delhi – which will cover South Asia, the Middle East and Africa

Origination # of travelers
kg of fuel per traveler total fuel
kg of CO2 per traveler total CO2
kg of CO2 warming effect per traveler total warming effect
New York 4,000 people
1,731 6,924,000 kg
5,282 21,128,000 kg
16,146 64,584,000 kg
Los Angeles 1,000 people
1,450 1,450,000 kg
4,508 4,508,000 kg
13,525 13,525,000 kg
Rome 3,000 people
1,240.00 3,720,000 kg
3,850.00 11,550,000 kg
11,560.00 34,680,000 kg
Hong Kong 1,000 people
404 404,000 kg
1,256 1,256,000 kg
3,769 3,769,000 kg
Delhi 1,000 people
608 608,000 kg
1,889 1,889,000 kg
5,666 5,666,000 kg
Fuel used: 13,106,000 kg
CO2 produced: 40,331,000 kg
Warming effect: 122,224,000 kg

I will update this post with better numbers as I find them. However my estimate is that the UN conference in Bali will spew over 40,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere in air travel alone. This CO2 has the warming effect of just over 122,000 metric tons of CO2.

According to this Wikipedia article, trees planted in the tropics remove 22kg of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. That’s roughly 45 trees needed to remove one metric ton of CO2.

So in order to cover the 40,000 metric tons we would have to plant roughly 2,000,000 trees in the tropics. I am currently working on learning more about these plantings, including species (e.g. Leucaena leucocephala, a Mexican native), size of tree, and the number of trees per hectare – so that I can estimate the area of afforestation it would take to offset this conference. However, I’m very leery of planting non-native species based on my experience with Senna spectabilis, a tree that is so invasive that you can cut one down, take the log and stick it into the ground and before you know it it will sprout and grow. Senna might offset carbon, but Senna forest is a desert in terms of its ability to support wildlife.

Finding stem density for tropical forests has been tough. The best I’ve found so far is this study on Ugandan forest. They used a 10cm DBH threshold, and found an average density of 479 trees per hectare. Using this figure I calculate that 4,175 hectares (10,317 acres) of trees would need to be planted to offset the carbon produced by the conference. Or just over 1 acre of trees per participant.

Glenn Reynolds has stated, “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when the people who say it’s a crisis start acting like it’s a crisis.” It’s difficult to argue with that sentiment. Imagine a conference to fight illegal drugs being attended by participants who were stoned, or holding a meeting to combat obesity at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Are global warming skeptics the only ones who appreciate the irony here?

Hat tip: The Rosett Report

UPDATE: 12/5/2007
The Seattle Post Intelligencer gives the carbon footprint at 47,000 tons, which is a bit higher than my estimate. However the article quotes Chris Goodall, author of the book “How to Live a Low-Carbon Life,” as saying that the figure is probably closer to 100,000 tons.

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  1. Chad:

    As many have been saying all along – those who create the most carbon emissions and use the most energy are the same ones who chastise and berate normal Americans for driving a car that might not get 40 miles to the gallon. When will everyone realize this is a ploy for political power, not a crusade to “save the polar bears”.

  2. cargos:

    I remember reading that one of the first Kyoto Treaty meetings on global warming was in Rio de Janeiro. Just one of the most isolated cities in the world….Someone figured that it took 17 million gallons of fuel for everyone to arrive.

    Saving the world my butt. Its all about money.
    How can I get a job doing this?

  3. Patrick Carroll:

    I take warnings about “Global Warming” or “Climate Change” just as seriously as do the people who issue the warnings.

  4. Art:

    In the 50’s there were about 5000 polar bears; now there are about 25,000. Which makes it easier to find and film a bear clinging onto a melting, drifting iceberg in order to illustrate the plight of the polar bear as the fading, poster child for human caused global warming. Yet it’s quite possible that more polar bears have flown in airplanes to zoos all around the globe than even existed in the wild in the 50’s. So, to continue the warming religion logic, distributing these white animals around the globe has apparently caused their demise, facts notwithstanding. I don’t get the logic but it’ll come to me perhaps if I watch an Inconvenient Truth for 24 hours straight, while my wife and I take turns riding a bicycle generator to power the tv/dvd player, while alternately resting on our polar bear rug.

  5. Kelly:

    Thanks for the great calculations! Could you explain what you mean by “warming effect”? I’ve never heard the term and a quick google search doesn’t seem to get me anywhere.

  6. Kelly:

    Sorry, I got ahead of myself. I followed the link to the calculator and see that they add on some warming impacts for other airplane emissions.

  7. Scott Kirwin:

    The term “warming effect” appears in the emissions calculator I used to come up with these figures. My guess is that it takes into effect the additional damage caused by emitting the CO2 at high altitude. So I guess that means that CO2 emitted at altitude is 3x worse than at sea level? However that’s just a guess.

  8. T J Sawyer:

    But if no one goes to the conference, won’t the planes just fly there anyway with different (or perhaps fewer) people on them? Using almost the same amount of fuel?

    Clearly, what is needed is an immediate ban on all flights to Bali!

  9. mhw:

    Per Sawyer’s remark.

    Its true that flying by common carrier is less of a greenhouse emitter than going on a private jet (and I think a bunch of people will go on private jets).

    However, if there were fewer globe hopping busybodies, the airlines would adapt their schedules accordingly and marginally fewer planes would be needed.

  10. Tom Nelson:

    Maybe they plan to fly on solar-powered jets…

  11. Laika's Last Woof:

    Senna forest sounds perfect: wildlife uses up oxygen and releases CO2. If sequestering carbon is our goal, wildlife isn’t part of the solution—it’s part of the problem.

    But that would mean taking the issue seriously, which brings us back to “I’ll start taking it seriously when …”

  12. PaulD:

    It is reasonable to assume that bringing 10,000 people to Bali for a conference will result in additional flights being scheduled, which will then need to return from whence they came less than full. And then when the conference ends, flights will need to pick up the conference attendees, which will require additional flights being scheduled to arrive in Bali, less than full. So is it reasonable to assume that your estimate is actually too conservative? I am certainly no expert in the logistics of scheduling commercial airline flights, but it seems reasonable to assume that these extra jets will not be parked in Bali while the conference is held.

  13. U.N. Report: Climate Change Possibly Irreversible - Page 3 - Bad Astronomy and Universe Today Forum:

    [...] is a crisis when the people who claim it is a crisis start acting like it is a crisis. Consider the carbon footprint of the UN Conference on Climate Change: Much of the blame for carbon dioxide emissions gets put on [...]

  14. jr565:

    Why do they need to travel at all? Has noone ever heard of video conferencing? Have a big screen setup in one of the rooms at the UN and have all the bigwigs give their speeches through a video feed.
    Those that aren’t there can see the conference because it can be saved as a quicktime movie and emailed to them.
    You’d think the guy who invented the internet would be up on such modern day advances.Maybe he should let his friends at the UN in on it.

  15. jr565:

    Think about the whole industry promoting global warming as a catastrophe. Think of all the books, conferences, videos, papers, research done about the scourge that is global warming. And behind every book, conference, video, paper and research there is a whole industry. There is production, then there’s distribution, then there’s promotion, then if its successful there’s a reprint or a dvd, and then there are award shows. And in all cases, people are scurrying around the world on jets, driving to award shows, filming on location (thus travelling to the locations, usually in jets)to create and deliver the product.

    What is the carbon footprint for the whole global warming industry? Think about how much they’d help the environment if they simply shut up about the problem.

    And this goes for environmentalism in general. How much waste is created and has to be picked up the day after earth day, and how much carbon was put into the atmosphere from people driving their cars to and from the concerts celebrating earth day. What’s the environmental cost of all the bumper stickers and environmental paraphenelia, that people are using to promote their cause.

  16. Chad:

    Take a gander at this report:

    I love when hypocrites are exposed.

  17. Scott Kirwin:

    Why do they need to travel at all?

    Good point. If people around the world can collaborate to design aircraft, computer processors and software, why does the UN need to conduct face-face meetings?

    And more importantly given the cost – both in resources and in CO2 emissions – why are they going to Bali to do it?

  18. Chris:

    1. A metric ton is 1000kg, not 2200kg, so 22kg/tree means 45 trees per ton per year.

    2. Calculating the trees that need to be planted doesn’t resonate with me. How about comparing it to driving an SUV? A gallon of gas produces 20lbs (9.1kg) of C02, so 122,224,000 kg CO2 equivalent is like driving a 13mpg SUV 175 million miles. So, the 10,000 delegates are producing more global warming effect with their flight to Bali than 10,000 SUV drivers do in a year of driving. (I’m assuming <17,500 mi/yr of driving.) Or consider that their flights are the GW equivalent of 3 years of driving a Prius.

  19. Frank Morris:

    Never heard of a Senna forest, but will check into it.
    Sounds deadly to fauna….does that mean no more chimpanzees contributing to “gaseous” pollution? GOOD!

  20. Scott Kirwin:

    1. Thanks for the correction.
    2. I was thinking in terms of carbon offsets. Planting trees is one of the ways that some have suggested that allow us to continue our carbon emitting ways without changing our behavior. Rather like indulgences in the pre-Reformation era of the Church.

  21. George Dainis:

    Planting trees is a viable concept only if you have a short term view and ignore a true mass balance on the system.

    At the end of the day, say 50 years from now, any trees you plant now will die. Then, they will rot, releasing (at best) all of the carbon dioxide fixed from the air. At worst, they will release methane as some of the gases of decomposition, making the overall greenhouse effect worse.

    Just remember, complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.

  22. Scott Kirwin:

    Just remember, complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.

    Yep – which is why I am concerned about talk to seed the oceans with iron or other methods to increase carbon capture. What is the likelihood that the solution is worse than the problem? The whole thing stinks of hubris to me, that we know more about a complex ecosystem than we actually do.

  23. qztown » Blog Archive » Carbon Footprint of UN Conference:

    [...] full story here [...]

  24. Patrick:

    “trees planted in the tropics remove 22kg of CO2 from the atmosphere per year. That’s roughly 45 trees needed to remove one metric ton of CO2. ”

    Seems like a math error here:

    If one tree removes 22kg, and 1kg = 1 metric ton,
    then 1 tree removes 22 metric tons

    rather than 45 trees removing 1 metric ton

  25. Scott Kirwin:

    45 trees * 22kg per tree=990kg
    1 metric ton=1000kg

    Or to put in non-metric imperial measures:

    1 tree removes 48.4 lbs of carbon.
    45 trees * 48.4 lbs = 2,178 lbs
    1 metric ton =2,200 lbs

    Like bad movies and stinky women, I blame the French for the confusion of the metric system.

  26. Dan:

    Does the 1731 kg figure for fuel cost come from dividing the total amount of fuel that the jet uses for the trip
    by the number of passengers? Sorry if this is a dumb question.

  27. Scott Kirwin:

    For this single trip, each participant from New York City will use 1,731 kg of fuel, producing 5,282 kg of CO2 with the warming effect of 16,146 kg.

    That comes from the calculator, and I assume that’s how it’s done.

  28. The Razor » Blog Archive » The Global Warming Cult:

    [...] the topic in 2007, they held it in one of the world’s remotest locations: Bali. At the time I estimated that air travel to the site alone would pump 40,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, slightly [...]

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