The Long Road: 650 Participants, 109 Countries and 720 tons of CO2

While offsetting CO2 emissions may be a means for compensation, for conference organizers and participants, it's not as easy to walk the talk.
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By Melanie Studer, MS, Industrial Ecology and Science Communication, Delft University of Technology and Leiden University

Where do WRF 2015 participants come from?

DAVOS, Switzerland--Standing upright and proud, Bas de Leeuw, managing director of the World Resources Forum, announced at the opening session that the World Resources Forum 2015 will be carbon neutral.

While offsetting CO2 emissions may be a means for compensation, for conference organizers and participants, it's not as easy to walk the talk.

One car, two planes and three trains later, Hossam Allam, Cairo-based regional program manager at the Centre of Environment and Development for the Arab Region and Europe, is happy to be arrived in Davos. "In my organization-even if it is an environmental one-the rule is that you have to buy the cheapest ticket not the least carbon intensive one, which would be a direct flight," he says.

Allam is one of nearly 650 participants from 109* countries who came to Davos to discuss the circular economy, resources efficiency and sustainable lifestyles and education. The record number of both participants and countries represented is worth celebrating. "We need people from all over the world to make a change and spread our message," Klaus Wiesen, project leader in sustainable consumption and production from the Wuppertal Institut in Germany, says excitedly.

But due to this increase in number of participants from far-away countries, the WRF 2015 has a larger footprint per participant than WRF 2013, which was the previous time the WRF was at Davos. This is despite numerous efforts to minimize the environmental impact of the conference.

"This year, we decided to make the menus vegetarian by default and to print less conference material," says de Leeuw. While every bit helps, this good intention can however be hardly noticeable in the overall impact of the conference. This year, traveling accounts for 95% of the 720 tons of CO2 emissions related to the conference.

Altogether, the impact of the conference is equivalent to the annual average carbon impact of 140 Swiss citizens. Offsetting will cost about 9000 CHF; the equivalent of 10 conference tickets (the full conference fee being 970 CHF per person).

The question remains, is this carbon impact worth it? "If I can pick up let alone one idea that I can replicate at a large scale, then it is worth it," answers Mukesh Gulati, Delhi-based executive director of Foundation for Micro Small and Medium Enterprises Clusters.

Another participant from Belgium who preferred to stay anonymous adds, "Bas de Leuw promised us that our carbon impact was compensated so our consciousness is okay now."

In the audience, a feeling of both responsibility and guilty ignorance seems to reign. "I don't want to know my ecological footprint," confesses Allam with an uncomfortable laugh, "because it's huge."

If one participant would know his ecological footprint I thought, it had to be Mathis Wackernagel, who co-founded the Global Footprint Network in 2004 after inventing the concept in 1994. Indeed, he knew. Every year, Wackernagel consumes as much carbon as about eight average citizens do in India he says.

"In our institute we more or less agreed, there is a phrase for that 'Not behind your front door'," says a group of participants who preferred to stay anonymous. "We are all employees of an environmental institute. We talk about environmental issues in the public domain but not behind our front door...we hope that our professional projects have a positive effect and create greater good but we don't talk about our own carbon impact."

*While we counted 109 countries, there are 10 participants who did not indicate their country.

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