One of the most surprising moments at the release of the landmark final report of the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Saturday was a little-noticed epilogue to the event.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon had warned of the alarming trajectory of climate change forecast as a possibility in the report, from the extinction of species to the potential for rising sea levels and the submerging of low-lying island nations in coming centuries.

But just as the crowd of journalists settled down to file their stories, one asked the following question: Had the panel’s 2,500 scientists, from dozens of nations around the world, “offset" the airline emissions they had created by flying to meetings? After all, the panel had convened and released reports this year in Paris, Brussels, Bangkok and Valencia. While not all of the scientists were in attendance at each event, hundreds were.

In each city, there were also delegations from some 130 nations to approve the IPCC documents. And, of course, there were hundreds of journalists to record this piece of environmental history. There was a short but uncomfortable silence on the podium in response to the question. “As far as the IPCC is concerned, we have not been able to take steps on this one," said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the IPCC and an eminent engineer and economist.

He explained: “There are lots of options advertised and people making lots of money. We want to make sure that whatever we choose is real and verifiable." Of course, it is difficult to balance each scientist’s good work against the pollution he has produced. And figuring out how to compensate for the greenhouse gases we make is a complicated, technical business.

Airline emissions are a fast growing contributor to greenhouse gases and, as Pachauri noted, there are now many for-profit companies you can pay to offset (or compensate for) the emissions you generate when you fly, using the money to fund eco-friendly projects that absorb carbon dioxide such as planting forests.

But if a consortium of the world’s leading climate scientists can’t figure out how to offset their emissions to make their meetings eco-friendly, what are the rest of us supposed to do? Given that meetings attract participants from all over the world, when is physical presence really necessary? Is a green international event even possible?

Imagine the equation in the private sector, where meetings generate hundreds of billions of dollars in profits each year. “Despite the positive economic contribution, meetings extract a high environmental cost," according to, a group that helps to make such gatherings more eco-friendly. I had a similar moment of green-meeting angst at the release in New York just over a month ago of the fifth annual Carbon Disclosure Project report, a meeting presided over by former president Bill Clinton. The project asks the world’s leading global corporations to track and report their emissions each year. But there were hundreds, if not thousands, of corporate representatives at the meeting, and Carbon Disclosure Project’s corporate members had each flown in employees from as far away as England and California to emphasize their commitment. Had the project contemplated doing this by videoconference?

“No," said Paul Dickinson, head of the project, who is also co-founder of EyeNetwork, the largest videoconferencing service in Europe. “We are probably the last generation to fly around like this. Videoconferencing can do a lot, but we’re not there yet."

Likewise, last week, thousands of corporate energy folks travelled to Rome for the 20th World Energy Congress, which was conveniently held next to the airport. There were sessions on biofuels and climate-change challenges. “Energy can mean development, but a sustainable one," the programme read.

But what I most noticed was the massive amount of paper the meeting generated. As I sat in the press centre—along with 200 other journalists—news releases were dropped on each desk in a constant stream. Each was printed on one side only. The lion’s share went entirely unread.

I brought home, in the synthetic briefcase/backpack given to each participant, the pile of paper accumulated over just two days. It added up to more than 4kg (in this regard, the IPCC event provided a better example. Only two documents were printed: the secretary general’s speech and the scientists’ summary report. There were no title pages, no fancy covers and text was printed on both sides of each page).

Green meetings are becoming increasingly popular, according to the Green Meeting Industry Council, with an increasing number of organizers considering eco-friendly planning in choosing among bids. But they could be a lot greener and are certainly not the norm, even among groups that focus on environmental issues.

Of course, mea culpa, I flew to Valencia, too. And when I’m at a conference, it’s hard not to pick up a handout—just in case. Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme, said in Valencia: “What we need is a new ethic in which everyone participates—with changes in lifestyle, attitude and behaviour." It is a new world for all of us who are accustomed to being somewhere in person, signing a treaty with a handshake, to watching body language during an interview. But perhaps by the next time an IPCC report comes out, five years from now, I will not fly to a conference centre. Perhaps I will be interviewing Pachauri by video.

©2007/international herald tribune

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