The big carbon conundrum

There’s something incongruous about the fact that Denmark is hosting this year’s United Nations Climate Summit in December.

Denmark gets 20% of its electricity from wind and, until recently, was the world’s biggest exporter of wind power technology. But its other ‘big export” is political scientist Bjorn Lomborg, one of the most prominent climate ‘sceptics”, who claims that global warming isn’t nearly as bad as some would have us believe.

I was pondering this contradiction last Saturday, after flopping into a departure lounge chair at Copenhagen airport. It was during a week-long heat wave and thousands of sun-burnt Europeans streamed through the duty-free shops on their way to or from their summer holiday spots.

The irony of my own situation wasn’t lost on me—I was visiting Copenhagen to prepare for covering the December climate negotiations.

And clutched in my grubby paw was an airline ticket which, with the usual reference number and flight itinerary, held a rather unexpected calculation: the full amount of carbon dioxide that would be burned getting me from Cape Town to Copenhagen and back again.

The 21 000km round trip would put 2.3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air. And I’ll do the same again when I return later this year.

The summit is expected to be the biggest in the UN’s history, bringing 15 000 people from around the world to the home of the Little Mermaid. That’s a lot of CO2. Worse still, there are several rounds of prenegotiation talks and related summits happening in Bonn, Bangkok, Italy—more air travel, more emissions.

Granted, this amount of air travel is a necessary evil if we are to get the kind of global agreement that will see the capping of greenhouse gas emissions at a level that will avoid dangerous climate change (politicians said we’d need to keep the temperature rise at no more than 2°C, but the latest science tells us that even a 1.5°C rise on the preindustrial temperature average is risky).

But once we’ve ‘sealed the deal” (that’s the catchphrase coming out of the Danish marketing machine), we might find the new protocol will significantly curb global air travel. Amid the noise
of emissions targets, a new concept has emerged.

The One Degree War Plan has been put forward by Jorgen Randers, the same guy who gave the groundbreaking ‘Limits to Growth” report in 1972. His plan tries to simplify the targets we need to reach within the next 10 to 15 years if we’re to avoid runaway climate change: reduce logging by 50%, ban 50% of all driving, and ground half of all air traffic by 2018. Imagine that?

I tried to, as I sat amid the throng of sweaty holiday travellers, and it didn’t seem as horrific as you might think.

Granted, it means the tourism industry needs to rethink its business model, but then runaway climate change will be even more costly to everyone in the long run, not just the tour guides.

Leonie Joubert of the South African Science Journalists’ Association was among 19 developing-world journalists who participated in a three-week course, ending on July 3, on decoding the climate negotiations, organised by the Nordic Agency for Development and Ecology