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Emissions versus representation: Who goes to COP and how do they get there?


As organisations are grappling with how to reduce their emissions in line with net zero targets, emissions from business travel are under increasing levels of scrutiny.

However, it cannot be a case of ceasing to travel, or restricting it to a privileged few. This hotly debated topic requires nuanced thinking in order to avoid a transition lacking in justice and equity. And though some may question the sense in tens of thousands of people flying into host countries to participate in the annual United Nations climate summits (COPs), there is also recognition of the need for a diverse range of voices in the negotiation processes.

So how do we balance (or indeed tip) the scales of emissions versus representation and an equitable transition, and what is the role of individual organisations in that process? This blog reflects on the decisions and thinking that went into selecting and sending a University of Leeds delegation to COP27 in Egypt.

Deciding on the delegation

The University of Leeds COP27 Task Force is responsible for allocating COP delegate badges that the University applies for as an observer to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In order to support this decision-making process, we had three guiding principles:

  • Our delegation aims to represent a diverse range of voices from across our University community in terms of career stage, disciplines, research foci and geography.
  • Delegates must be undertaking research that requires their attendance at COP and / or be engaged in the delivery of two or more activities during their time in Egypt.
  • Delegates must demonstrate a willingness to engage in broader activities to represent University of Leeds research and bring COP27 back to Leeds.

These guiding principles led us to select 5 Leeds researchers and 1 alumnus to attend COP27 as part of the University of Leeds delegation, with one additional academic attending accredited by another organisation but supported financially by the University of Leeds.

Providing travel guidance

Having selected our delegation, our priority was to ensure we minimised emissions associated with their travel to Egypt. To support this, we referred all of our delegates to the University’s recently published interim travel guidance.

Given the extended journey time of travel by train, bus and boat to Egypt from the UK, it was considered necessary for our delegates to fly to Egypt. The key piece of advice for our delegates was therefore to take direct flights where possible, as take-off and landing account for a high proportion of emissions. We also asked our delegation to use public transport for travel to and from the airport where feasible.

Estimated emissions

In total the estimated emissions from our delegations travel to COP27 are c.a. 8.2 tonnes CO2e.*

All but one member of our delegation were able to fly directly to Sharm El-Shiekh. For one member of the delegation it was not possible to fly direct from their location in the USA. Public transport was also not possible for the return journey of one of our delegates because their flight arrived after the last train home.

The offsetting conundrum

The COP Task Force will not be offsetting the emissions associated with our COP27 delegation outside of the cumulative offsetting by the University of Leeds as an institution. The primary aim in implementing a net zero target must be to reduce emissions as much as feasibly possible and there is clearly more work to be done in the case of travel. In addition, the recent UK Climate Change Committee report on voluntary carbon markets and offsetting highlighted that business reporting and standards are not yet good enough to trust the offsetting market.

However, this does not preclude the use of offsets in the future. There is also a case to argue that where offsetting is used, consolidating the University’s purchasing power and working with other organisations through the EAUC Carbon Coalition will be more influential, and so the emissions associated with our COP27 delegation will only be offset as part of an institutional level process.

Enablers and challenges

It’s worthwhile reflecting on the enablers and challenges that we came across through the process of actively engaging in efforts to minimise emissions from our COP27 delegation. Critically, members of our delegation were willing to engage in these efforts and genuinely wanted to ensure they minimised emissions from their COP27 attendance. We also had readily available guidance to point to at the right time, and staff supporting our delegates were able to pull out the critical points for people to consider.

Booking direct flights was often not the lowest effort option for members of our delegation, as the University’s travel agent generally offered flights with a change, even in cases where direct flights were available. However, the University’s guidance offers an alternative route to engage the purchasing team to facilitate booking more sustainable routes of travel, and this supported our delegates to reduce their emissions.

Other challenges that contributed to elevated emissions were a lack of direct long-haul flights, and a lack of connecting public transport for late arriving flights.

Call to action for all actors in the process

As has been observed by many, the journey to more sustainable travel is not an easy one. It requires engagement and commitment from actors throughout the process to move the dial and ensure that sustainable travel is the more accessible, affordable and efficient option.

Institutions must provide and actively promote clear guidance to support their staff and students in making sustainable business travel decisions. Critically, this guidance must be underpinned by infrastructure in terms of knowledgeable travel agents and staff engaged in supporting travel bookings, so that they can facilitate access to the most sustainable form of travel.

As individuals, we can support this by engaging with relevant guidance and thinking critically about the options we are offered for our business travel, and indeed whether we need to travel at all.

Actors outside of the University also have a role to play. It is imperative that research funders put in place policies that allow the use of more expensive options where they are selected to reduce emissions or the impact of delivering research. Governments and public transport providers also need to link up to provide effective multi-modal options.

For COPs specifically, the UNFCCC must build on the important progress made so far and continue to enhance opportunities for reliable and genuine virtual engagement for observers. And for the University of Leeds COP Task Force… we need to reflect on our learning, continue to make decisions using our guiding principles and ensure we refine the way that we support our community to engage in the COPs in order to minimise emissions.

*Calculated via with flights emissions accounting for radiative forcing using DEFRA’s recommended radiative forcing factor.

This blog was written by Dr Shona Smith, Research and Innovation Development Manager for the Priestley International Centre for Climate. 

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash