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How To Stay Carbon-Neutral When Getting To Paris Is Carbon-Costly

Dec 10, 2015
Originally published on December 10, 2015 5:28 pm

There's a contradiction here at the U.N. climate summit in Paris. And it's been bugging me.

So I stopped a woman at random, Liz Hanson, from Whitehorse, Yukon, in Canada, and asked her about it.

She flew a long way to get here — 12 or 13 hours.

"Big carbon footprint for that, right?" I asked her.

"I would say there probably really is," she said.

Here at the summit, there are tens of thousands of people who've flown to Paris to talk about reducing carbon emissions — emitting a lot of carbon in the process.

How much carbon?

I went to a kiosk labeled "Carbon Neutral Now."

I asked Niclas Svenningsen, who works for the U.N. Environment Program, how much carbon I emitted flying from Washington to Paris.

On the website climateneutralnow.org, he punched in my itinerary and concluded my round-trip flight would emit about a ton of greenhouse gases.

"If you think of a hot air balloon," he said, "the volume that you have in a hot air balloon, that's roughly 1 ton of greenhouse gases."

At this kiosk, they do more than just calculate your emissions. The U.N. sells carbon offsets — basically, investments in projects that bend the emissions curve downward. The website features projects from clean cookstoves to renewable energy, each at a different price.

I picked a hydropower program in India.

To offset my flight to Paris and back, "it's a very low cost, actually," Svenningsen told me. "It's $1 per ton."

Only a dollar?

"It's ridiculously cheap, to be quite honest," he said. "And to be honest, also, the proper carbon price should be higher. But because the market's between demand and supply now today — it may change next week — but now, today, it's more supply than demand, and therefore prices are very, very low. And that's one reason many people are taking the opportunity to offset not only the flight, they offset for a year — or for life."

So I gave him a dollar.

For my dollar, I got a white lanyard for my conference ID.

All the U.N. staffers wear them. It's a way of showing that your trip here was carbon-neutral.

But most of the conference delegates here are not wearing white lanyards. Lots of people told me they just hadn't heard of the program.

Finally, I met Samuel Welsh, from England, wearing one.

"I thought it was a good idea to do that, seeing as I'm coming to a climate change conference," he said.

He told me he's not surprised by how few people are offsetting the carbon emissions from their flights.

"I think there's a lot of people here that do care," he said, "but maybe think that it's more than just an individual effort on behalf of themselves and think it's down to maybe negotiators and people like that."

Everyone here is so focused on the big global picture, sometimes it can be easy to overlook the small stuff.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Tomorrow night is the deadline for climate negotiators in Paris to reach a deal - a deal nearly 200 countries can sign onto. Now, if they succeed, it could slow the pace of climate change. Our ALL THINGS CONSIDERED co-host Ari Shapiro is in Paris covering the summit. And Ari, I said if they succeed, right, because, I mean, what are the changes looking like right now?

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Well, everyone's pretty confident there will be a deal, some kind of document will come out. But nobody knows what kind of deal. And the biggest sticking points could stay unresolved until the last second. They could even bust the deadline. So right now everybody's just biting their nails.

CORNISH: But what are some of those sticking points?

SHAPIRO: One of them is how you hold countries accountable to the commitments they've made. Another is money - how much developed countries will pay to help less-developed ones deal with climate change - and what happens down the road to get stronger and stronger commitments even after the Paris deal is done.

CORNISH: So in the meantime, you're just waiting.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, like, tens of thousands people of here are just waiting. And as I waited, I started to think about a contradiction here at the summit. It was bugging me, so I just asked a woman pretty much at random about it.

LIZ HANSON: I'm Liz Hanson. I'm from Whitehorse, Yukon.

SHAPIRO: In Canada.

HANSON: Yes, correct.

SHAPIRO: And you flew a long way to get here.

HANSON: Sure did - like 12 hours, 13 hours.

SHAPIRO: Big carbon footprint for that, right?

HANSON: I would say there probably really is.

SHAPIRO: And here we have tens of thousands of people who have flown to Paris to talk about reducing carbon emissions, emitting a lot of carbon in the process, it would seem.

HANSON: I think you're absolutely right.

SHAPIRO: How much carbon? I went to a kiosk that said Carbon Neutral Now, and I asked Niclas Svenningsen, who works for the U.N., how much carbon did I emit flying from Washington, D.C., to Paris.

NICLAS SVENNINGSEN: So you went economy or...

SHAPIRO: I went economy - please, I work for public radio.

On the website climateneutralnow.org, he punched in my itinerary and concluded that my round-trip flight emitted about a ton of greenhouse gases.

SVENNINGSEN: If you think of a hot air balloon, the volume that you have in a hot air balloon - that is roughly one ton of greenhouse gases.

SHAPIRO: At this kiosk, they'll do more than just calculate your emissions. The U.N. sells carbon offsets - basically investments in projects that bend the emissions curve downward. The website has projects from clean-cook stoves to renewable energy, each at a different price. I picked a hydropower program in India.

SVENNINGSEN: It's a very low cost actually, it's $1 per ton.

SHAPIRO: Wait, $1 per ton.

SVENNINGSEN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: So to offset my flight from the U.S. to Paris and back is $1?

SVENNINGSEN: It's ridiculously cheap, to be quite honest. And to be honest also, proper carbon price should be higher. But because the markets between demand and supply now today - it may change next week - but now today is more supply than demand. And therefore, prices are very, very low. And that's for one reason why many people are actually taking the opportunity to offset not only their flight, they offset for a year or for life.

SHAPIRO: Well, can I give you a dollar?

SVENNINGSEN: (Laughter). You can give me a dollar.

SHAPIRO: For my dollar, I get a white lanyard for my conference ID. All the U.N. staffers wear them. It's a way of showing everybody that your trip here was carbon neutral. But most of the conference delegates here in Paris are not wearing white lanyards. Lots of people told me they just hadn't heard of the program. Finally, I met Englishman Samuel Welsh, wearing one.

SAMUEL WELSH: I thought it's a good idea to do that, seeing as how I'm kind of coming into a climate change conference.

SHAPIRO: He told me he's not surprised at how few people are offsetting the carbon emissions from their flights.

WELSH: Because I think there's a lot of people here that do care, but maybe think that it's more than just an individual effort on behalf of themselves and think it's down to maybe negotiators and people like that.

SHAPIRO: Everyone here is so focused on the big global picture, sometimes it can be easy to overlook the small stuff. This is Ari Shapiro at the U.N. Climate Summit in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.