Offsets make light of COP17 carbon load

The COP17 climate change conference in Durban late last year generated 76 919 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2), a fraction of the carbon footprint of the Soccer World Cup in 2010, according to initial research.

The figure, released this week by the department of environmental affairs, was based on an estimated 25 000 delegates.

It took into account the actual conference, countrywide consultation sessions leading up to it and accredited delegates’ travel to Durban. International travel produced the bulk of the carbon emissions.

“A separate component addresses the official South African delegates’ footprint, which provided them with the opportunity to lead by example through offsetting their own emissions where possible,” said Albi Modise, the departmental communications director.

The carbon footprint for the South African delegation was estimated at just over 218 tonnes. The delegation offset this footprint through the community ecosystem-based adaptation project (Ceba), a Durban natural areas restoration initiative.

Modise said the final COP17 footprint would be confirmed after the department had received a consolidated list of delegates from the United Nations secretariat that hosted the event.

The eThekwini municipality is measuring the carbon footprint in Durban, taking into account emissions from energy and gas use at COP17 venues and accommodation facilities, local travel for delegates, and the transport of waste and catering equipment.

Estimates before COP17 put the local carbon footprint in the region of 15 000 tonnes of CO2. The municipality said this week the final figures would be released in April.

Debra Roberts, deputy head of environmental planning and climate protection for the municipality, said the Ceba project would offset an estimated 16 000 tonnes of CO2 through the restoration of natural habitats by communities in the catchment areas of the Umbilo and Umhlatuzana rivers.

“The project is primarily about improving adaptation to climate change, with the mitigation of climate impacts a co-benefit through the natural sequestration of carbon dioxide that takes place during habitat restoration,” she said.

During COP17, the Wildlands Conservation Trust was appointed as the official agent to collect donations from delegates who wanted to offset their footprint.

They bought Ceba credits, with every R100 sponsoring one “green person day”, enough to pay for a community member to undertake alien plant clearing, habitat restoration, or waste collection and recycling.

Andrew Venter, the trust’s chief executive officer, said R1.6-million had been committed to Ceba at COP17. “It’s a model that can make a real difference, addressing poverty and changing behaviour,” he said. “We plan to build on Ceba and replicate it.”

The department said that several carbon reduction, avoidance and sequestration initiatives besides Ceba were undertaken for COP17. These included planting 34 000 trees in northern KwaZulu-Natal, retrofitting 67 solar water heaters in rural and semi-rural clinics, setting up a 0.5MW solar photovoltaic farm in Verulam and retrofitting the conference centre and streets of Durban with energy-efficient lighting.

“The exact carbon emission reduction of each of these initiatives is still being processed,” said Modise.

Studies of the Soccer World Cup in 2010 put its total carbon footprint at more than 2.7-million tonnes of CO2, roughly equivalent to the amount released by one million cars in a year. The bulk of the emissions were the result of international travel by teams, fans, administrators and support staff.

Earthlife Africa’s Tristen Taylor, who researched official carbon offset for the World Cup, warned this week against a simplistic interpretation of COP17 offsets.

“There are also some dodgy calculations, faulty logic and plain bad science floating around carbon offsetting, especially when it comes down to the planting of trees,”
he said.

“To offset an international flight, trees that are planted must last for 100 years — this is how long it takes to absorb [on average] an equivalent amount of carbon.

“In 100 years, the carbon from the World Cup would have helped to melt the ice caps and raise sea levels,” Taylor said.

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Fiona Macleod
Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements.

She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga.

An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation.

She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive.

She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice.

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