Environment

Boris Johnson’s COP26 flight was ‘unavoidable’, apparently

Short haul flights to and from COP26 have been classed as "unavoidable" emissions in the event's carbon management plan.

Private jets are one of the most carbon-intensive modes of travel. (Photo: ©David Dixon cc-by-sa/2.0)

COP26 has boasted of being the first “carbon neutral” conference of its kind, with organisers insisting all but essential emissions have been avoided or reduced in hosting the event. 

Yet according to the COP26 carbon management plan, Boris Johnson’s domestic flight from Glasgow to London will be classed as “unavoidable” emissions. 

Julia Christian, a lawyer specialising in climate and development issues, rejects this and says leaders taking short-haul flights to and from COP26 was easily avoidable, and smacks of “poor leadership”.

A summary of the plan, which is not yet finalised, outlines how organisers aim to achieve “carbon neutrality” through avoiding, reducing and offsetting emissions. 

“The carbon management plan requires that carbon avoidance and minimisation is adopted as a priority and that offsetting is used for ‘residual’ emissions only.

“All unavoidable emissions will be offset”, it reads.  

The plan’s calculation of carbon emissions includes international, national and local travel for blue zone attendees, exhibitors, official media, contractors, government staff and green zone visitors. 

International travel is by far the largest contributor, representing 60 per cent of the event’s total emissions. 

The plan says the government attempted to avoid these emissions through “promoting overland travel as an alternative travel option for those delegates where feasible and appropriate”. 

Yet according to flight data from aviation consultancy WingX, inbound private jets to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports rose by 525 per cent on the first day of the summit when compared to the previous seven days. 

It’s been reported that 118 private jets flew into these airports on the first day of the conference alone. Many were arriving from Rome, where another climate conference was held prior to COP26. 

Private jets are one of the most carbon intensive modes of travel. Assuming all of these jets contained COP26 attendees, they will have added over 1,000 tonnes of CO2 to the carbon footprint of the conference. 

Further emissions have been generated since the first day of the conference, with Boris Johnson facing criticism last week after flying from Glasgow to London to attend a dinner. This week, he returned to Glasgow by train. 

Earlier in the year, Boris Johnson also flew  in a private jet to the G7 leaders’ summit in Cornwall, where climate change was high on the agenda.

The G7’s finalised carbon management plan revealed last week that the event was more polluting than expected, with 20,960 tonnes of CO2 emitted rather than the 16,000 tonnes predicted.

The plan also classed domestic and international flights to the June event as “unavoidable”.

Meanwhile, a report produced for the UK government has estimated that COP26’s emissions output will be double that of COP25.

The event is on track to emit 102,500 tonnes of CO2: more than the average annual carbon footprint of 7,500 Brits combined. 

The COP26 carbon management plan says all “unavoidable” emissions will be offset through projects such as forest regeneration and replacement of inefficient energy systems.

Offsets are highly controversial, though. Though Christian did not want to comment on the specific offsetting projects chosen by the government, she told the Big Issue: 

“I have a problem with documents like this that claim the event is carbon neutral – there’s a lot of highly hypothetical assumptions in the concept of offsets”.

“Offsets” are projects (often in the global south) which reduce future greenhouse gas emissions. One example would be installing efficient cooking stoves in people’s homes. 

They work by calculating the emissions that would have been emitted were the project not implemented. The idea is that the project allows greenhouse gases (such as those produced during COP26) to be emitted elsewhere. 

This concept is highly flawed, says Christian, because it often means people are “inventing scenarios in which emissions would have been produced. They potentially would never have been produced.”

“The atmosphere doesn’t see hypothetical emissions,” she added. “In the end, the emissions from the event are still going into the atmosphere.”

Christian acknowledges a focus on individual choices when discussing climate change isn’t always helpful. When it comes to politicians, however, she points out “everything they do is a message”.

“We have to hold our politicians to the standard we expect from other people. Taking some of these short-haul flights is poor leadership. I really don’t agree that these emissions were unavoidable.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “Sustainability is at the core of COP26. The UK will be offsetting all carbon emissions associated with running the event.

“COP26 will be a carbon neutral event and we will be the first COP to achieve validation under the internationally recognised standard, PAS2060. The key priority through the application of our Carbon Management Plan is to reduce and avoid emissions.”

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