The COP24 is not sustainable and this shows how far away we are from actual climate action (both mitigation and adaptation), as well as the drastic measures that must be taken. My project focused on finding out whether the COP24 and people attending actually reflect the fight towards transitioning to sustainable development and lifestyles. The short answer is no. Neither the COP24 is carbon neutral, nor most delegates are living sustainably, although they might try really hard. In this blog post, I will just focus on the conference itself first.
Many articles already criticize how much CO2 emissions this conference is equivalent to, despite the UNFCCC’s statement that “the event is to be entirely climate neutral”. RT estimates that the summit will emit more CO2 than 8,200 U.S. homes do in a year. Even if some GHG emissions can be “offset”, and delegations were encouraged to purchase UN-certified offsets to compensate for their carbon footprint, the material waste created cannot be eliminated.
The food waste and litter for instance cannot simply be “offset”. I witnessed at the end of every day how trays still full of food were being thrown away. I asked the staff once where these trays were going and they answered with a disappointed smile “oh well, to the trash” and then offered if I wanted some of the food left.
With regards to the type of food offered, it is clear that the Polish diet is unfortunately quite unsustainable. Wednesday’s buffet at the Spodek arena confirmed this dietary hypothesis, with 11 out of 13 dishes being processed meat, sausages, and beef. In fact, a new analysis from the Center for Biological Diversity, Farm Forward and Brighter Green calculates that the meat-heavy menu at the COP24 could contribute to 4,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases. Meat dishes generate average greenhouse gas emissions four times higher than the plant-based meals. But these facts did not stop the Polish Pavilion from giving out cultural delicacies like wild boar meat, red deer meat, lard and other meat-based tapas (not to mention the coal-soap exhibition which probably won them the Fossil of the Day award on the first day). Should we change our diets even if it is part of our culture or simply how we produce and consume things? The second option is obviously preferable.
Plastics and recyclables are also a big problem. All food locations and coffee stands offered plastic lids, plastic bottles, and even straws sometimes. The welcome package came with a reusable bottle, however, not many people seemed to use them which makes this initiative useless. The recycling guidelines for the colorful bins set out throughout the venues were not clear either, and whether we could put stained packaging in the paper bin or compost in the “other waste” bin was unspecified. By looking into these bins a couple of times, I realized that we don’t even know how to recycle properly. The waste management issue was mentioned in the UNFCCC’s website and stated that everything would be recycled according to the current Polish regulation, however Poland is well below the latest EU-27 average of 40% (25% recycled and 15% composted) of recycling rates, which means landfilling will mostly be the alternative and it’s in fact most common way of handling waste in Poland. The staff taking out the trash would sometimes mix all the color trash bags into a single black bag too.
The COP24 is a replica of our current flawed and unsustainable system and this also reflects how difficult the efforts of transition and mitigation will be. The way we are currently living is not eco-friendly and Debra Roberts, an IPCC Co-Chair from the Working Group II, highlighted 4 main systems that guide our lifestyles which have to change: 1) Energy 2) Cities 3) Land use and 4) Industry. All the aforementioned have the technological know-how, scientific backup, and simple alternatives for individuals necessary to start the transition. We just need the policies and governments to align, and invest in these solutions.
Nevertheless, not all was negative with the COP24, and we should acknowledge the efforts done to make the conference paperlight, virtual and so transparent and accessible, sustainable in terms of transportation around the city by using public buses, mostly plastic packaging-free (sandwiches, pastries and fruits were given), and reusable materials were also used for equipment and decoration of spaces offices and pavilions. The President of this year’s summit, Mr. Michal Kurtyka also stated in his opening speech on Monday that the fact that the venue for the COP24 was once a coal mine, shows that transitioning is possible.
Through my empirical research we cannot see all the measures taken behind the scenes to organize this COP and make it as sustainable as possible. Overall, I believe the COP is more a symbol of peaceful diplomacy and negotiation that takes place every year to show the solidarity between nation states and a will for change (although the will is not enough and things are not moving fast enough). If we evaluate the outcomes of the negotiations and their success over time, we might start to believe that bringing together more than 22,000 people for this event is not worth it. As it has been stressed over and over again by many parties, we cannot afford to waste more time with a business-as-usual approach. The IPCC clearly states that radical decisions and unprecedented measures must be implemented to avoid the catastrophic predictions if we reach 1.5 degrees. My next blog will report what I’ve learned with regards to how we can convince people to care and take action more efficiently. If we know what’s at stake why do we still not care enough? Why are politicians still talking about the costs of mitigating climate change and not the benefits of taking climate action? These paradoxes will also be addressed in my next blog.