Under a new and expanding program for offsetting emissions, United Nations administrators calculated that the meeting would generate the equivalent of 461 tons of carbon dioxide, with air travel being the single largest component. They offset those emissions by directing money to a power project in rural Andhra Pradesh, India, through which agricultural leftovers like rice husks and sunflower stalks are turned into electricity for the local grid.What efforts were made to actually reduce the output of emissions for this gathering? Very little from the looks of the multitude of SUVs and other caravans of vehicles transporting diplomats and dignitaries all over the City, to say nothing of the aircraft flown in from around the world for the meeting or the gridlock caused by all those diplomats traveling around the city and street closures and detours that render driving in the City a nightmare.
The offsets are intended to cancel out the carbon dioxide emissions created by airline travel or driving by financing green projects that will eliminate as much CO2 as the polluting activities create.
Since most of India’s power is currently produced by burning fossils fuels, like coal, producing energy instead at the Andhra Pradesh biomass plant reduces India’s overall carbon emissions.
The United Nations first tried its hand at large-scale offsets two years ago, shortly after Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who called Tuesday’s conference, took office and declared that climate issues would be a central theme of his tenure.
“The secretary general started talking about greening the U.N. and that we needed to lead by example,” said Dan Shepard, a United Nations spokesman in New York.
Earlier efforts at offsetting emissions, Mr. Shepard said, were less systematic, and over time, they have become more sophisticated and rigorous. The United Nations hopes eventually to apply the offset system to all meetings, “as well as individual travel,” he said.
But back to the key claim - that the UN is actually reducing emissions. The UN isn't reducing its own emissions or even offsetting its emissions, but hoping that some other emitter reduces its emissions going forward. It's shifting the burden around.
Even the plant that the UN touts isn't reducing emissions. It's a new emitter of CO2, but at lesser amounts than a comparable coal-fired plant. That means that CO2 levels will continue rising, but at a fractionally lower level, and the UN can claim it did something to combat CO2 levels without doing anything substantive to reduce its own emissions.
The CO2 from the UN confab has already made it into the atmosphere, and unless carbon sequestration technologies can be made workable (and not cause earthquakes as some pilot programs have found), the only way to curtail emissions is to actually reduce them - not to pay off someone else or plant trees to offset emissions.
That means using less energy - more teleconferencing and fewer vehicles or using more hybrid vehicles to get diplomats around town. It means using more efficient aircraft to ferry diplomats to the UN meeting. But don't expect that to happen overnight or anytime soon as diplomats or the President of the United States rely on those SUVs because they provide a measure of security from a wide range of threats that a smaller car can't.