Climate talks a test of attendees' environmental mettle

Earth-friendly efforts in Bali had limited success with visitors

December 17, 2007|By Laurie Goering | Laurie Goering,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NUSA DUA, Indonesia -- Flying around the world to stem climate change isn't easy to defend. And that was just one of the environmental quandaries facing some 10,000 delegates, policy experts, activists and journalists at climate talks in Bali, which ended Saturday with a framework plan to trim the world's greenhouse-gas emissions.

Free bicycles, for instance, were available on loan to delegates who wanted to ride between the meeting's various side events. They got plenty of use. But a share of negotiators and journalists alike, exhausted after days of overnight talks and dripping sweat in Bali's steamy heat, took one guilty look at the bikes and then waved for an air-conditioned taxi instead.

Inside the negotiating venue, air conditioners hummed - admittedly set at a higher temperature than normal, but humming nonetheless. Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environmental minister and president of the gathering, encouraged delegates to leave their business suits at home and invest in a few lightweight tropical Balinese shirts as the formal attire of the gathering. He had only limited success.

Documents at the meeting were printed on both sides of sheets of paper. Lunch was served on glass plates, with nary a Styrofoam clamshell or piece of plastic wrap in sight. Delegates for the most part climbed the stairs rather than searched out elevators, and limos were conspicuously absent, particularly for a gathering that drew heads of state.

But other green efforts didn't go so well. Drinking-water dispensers outside the venue, dispensing water as hot as tea because of the tropical sun, were surrounded by small heaps of used plastic cups, despite signs urging attendees to keep them for reuse. And the Jakarta Post revealed that after bottles, paper and aluminum cans were diligently tossed into appropriately labeled recycling bins at the conference, the haul ended up in the same place as all other trash in Bali: an open dump.

By some U.N. estimates, the 13-day meeting produced at least 47,000 tons of carbon dioxide, most of it from the plane flights needed to get delegates there. That's nearly half as many greenhouse gases as Chicago emits in a day.

For the most part, officials at the meeting called the copious emissions worth it, given that the gathering produced an international framework agreement that could drive trillions of tons of greenhouse-gas reductions in coming years. Videoconferencing, they said, for all its low-emissions appeal, still doesn't present quite the same opportunities for sidelines negotiating - not to mention that linking 10,000 people in more than 180 countries and a broad range of time zones might present a few problems.

But there were some breakthroughs in Bali, and not just on the negotiating front. U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and head of a House committee on energy independence and global warming, took the no-carbon option and gave a speech at Bali via the Internet, using an animated likeness of himself projected on screen.

Taxis, though guiltily waved down, were often shared; more often, delegates simply walked back to their hotels, many set a short distance from the negotiating venue. Sweating profusely in the tropical heat, a few may have gotten a sense of what's ahead for people in already steamy places like Bangladesh, on the front lines of climate change. And for those urging every individual to act to reduce their carbon footprint, the meeting was a fine early test of whether they were ready to walk the talk.

Laurie Goering writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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