How Much Carbon Will Be Emitted By People Travelling to the Paris Climate Talks?

Illustration for article titled How Much Carbon Will Be Emitted By People Travelling to the Paris Climate Talks?

With attendees from 195 countries convening Paris this week for the UN’s COP21 climate talks, it’s definitely fair to wonder if all that traveling might actually be a bad thing for the climate. Wired did the math.


Although many of the events around the talks have been scaled back or cancelled after the attacks earlier this month, an estimated 50,000 people are expected to travel to Paris this week, including not only heads of state but also reps from NGOs, clean energy entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and his climate Dream Team, and plenty of journalists to cover it all. What kind of climate damage might these benevolent travelers inflict on the warming planet?

Here are Wired’s calculations:

If you add up all the Bangkoks, Bermudas, Cape Towns, Sydneys, Santiagos, Samoas, Jakartas, Singapores, and Stockholms in between, the average distance per traveler is about 9,000 miles, round trip.

Those people will arrive on trains, cars, but mostly airplanes. When flown at full capacity (and the airline industry being what it is, and the Paris meetings being what they are, there’s little reason to think the planes will be anything but packed), a Boeing 747 (a happy medium between private jets and bullet trains) gets about 16.5 miles per gallon of jet fuel. Between 50,000 attendees, that’s about 27 million gallons of the stuff.

When burned, every one of those 27 million gallons of jet fuel releases about 21 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Added up, all those planes flying to the Paris climate talks will release about 575 million pounds of CO2.

Alone, that looks like a really big number. Compared to the entire world, which produces about 80 quadrillion pounds of CO2 each year, it’s not much. In fact, all the travel for all the people to and from Paris equals about 22 seconds of global CO2 emissions. Add in two weeks of hotels, taxis, espressos, pastries, and wine toasts, and you can probably tack on another half second or so.


The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is going to release its own audit, after the fact, so rest assured that the organizers are definitely thinking about this. At least the French government is purchasing carbon offsets to account for the millions of pounds emitted by travel.

It’s worth wondering why we couldn’t possibly manage to do this thing virtually. I get that meeting in person helps convey the gravity of the situation, but seriously, it’s 2015: Have everyone Skype in their pledges and spend this week getting to work.

Still, it’s important to note that 195 nations so far have made this a priority—that’s a good thing. And hopefully, after this event, we won’t ever need have to have this kind of meeting ever again.


Follow the author at @awalkerinLA

Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally. AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani


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“With attendees from 195 countries convening Paris this week for the UN’s COP21 climate talks, it’s definitely fair to wonder if all that traveling might actually be a bad thing for the climate.”

No. No no no no no no no. No. It’s not “definitely fair to wonder.” It’s the opposite of that. It’s asinine.

This shallow, stupid argument has been getting tossed about for years, (at least) ever since some idiot tried to discredit Al Gore for traveling on an airplane promoting An Inconvenient Truth. The horror.

I can barely begin to desribe just how incredibly moronic this line of thinking is, but I’ll try.

First off, it’s tu quoque ( “The people meeting on how to reduce carbon pollution are, wait for it, burning carbon. Let’s dismiss, minimize or ignore the facts motivating the talks in the first place!”

Second, even if not intended actually to discredit the message, it’s still childishly and breathtakingly self-centered. “Look at all those silly delegates, using transportation methods based mostly on fossil fuels. I, the intrepid and morally superior reporter, can point out that fact and report it as news. Even better, as distracting, hypocritical, message-disqualifying news! The best kind! And my article gets lots of hits and links, from like-minded readers whose brains are not at all wasting away in their skulls. Meanwhile, it’s not like the media reporting on the discussion are ignoring anything significant like, you know, the merits of the damn thing as a result ...”

Third, it’s dangerously disconnected from reality. “How are major decisions of this kind to be made by representatives of the world’s nations? Well, it certainly can’t be by getting together and talking about it. That would involve transportation, which depends upon fuel, which is still overwhelmingly carbon-based! Never mind that neither I nor anyone else can come up with an genuine alternative. My article implicitly condemns all the delegates for not utilizing magic carbon-neutral super pods! And yes I realize that, if I were to actually take this thinking to its logical conclusion, I would be willing to tell my great-grandchildren, sitting around while the human race and millions of animal and plant species go extinct, unable to do anything about it, that, damnit, I was right to condemn the original, unforgivable sin of people getting together to reduce climate change at a time when something could be done about it! Sorry, great-grandkids! There were no other, better ways for me to contribute to the conversation anyway (…), and I was definitely not merely trafficking in terrible logic and sloppy, lowest-common denominator journalism. No way! That’s just the kind of hard-driving, heroic, humble reporter I am!”