How Much Carbon Will Be Emitted By People Travelling to the Paris Climate Talks?

By Alissa Walker on at

With attendees from 195 countries convening Paris this week for the UN’s COP21 climate talks, it’s definitely fair to wonder if all that travelling might actually be a bad thing for the climate. Wired did the maths.

Although many of the events around the talks have been scaled back or cancelled after the attacks earlier this month, an estimated 50,000 people are expected to travel to Paris this week, including not only heads of state but also reps from NGOs, clean energy entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and his climate Dream Team, and plenty of journalists to cover it all. What kind of climate damage might these benevolent travellers inflict on the warming planet?

Here are Wired’s calculations:

If you add up all the Bangkoks, Bermudas, Cape Towns, Sydneys, Santiagos, Samoas, Jakartas, Singapores, and Stockholms in between, the average distance per traveller is about 9,000 miles, round trip.

Those people will arrive on trains, cars, but mostly aeroplanes. When flown at full capacity (and the airline industry being what it is, and the Paris meetings being what they are, there’s little reason to think the planes will be anything but packed), a Boeing 747 (a happy medium between private jets and bullet trains) gets about 16.5 miles per gallon of jet fuel. Between 50,000 attendees, that’s about 27 million gallons of the stuff.

When burned, every one of those 27 million gallons of jet fuel releases about 21 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Added up, all those planes flying to the Paris climate talks will release about 575 million pounds of CO2.

Alone, that looks like a really big number. Compared to the entire world, which produces about 80 quadrillion pounds of CO2 each year, it’s not much. In fact, all the travel for all the people to and from Paris equals about 22 seconds of global CO2 emissions. Add in two weeks of hotels, taxis, espressos, pastries, and wine toasts, and you can probably tack on another half second or so.

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change is going to release its own audit, after the fact, so rest assured that the organisers are definitely thinking about this. At least the French government is purchasing carbon offsets to account for the millions of pounds emitted by travel.

It’s worth wondering why we couldn’t possibly manage to do this thing virtually. I get that meeting in person helps convey the gravity of the situation, but seriously, it’s 2015: Have everyone Skype in their pledges and spend this week getting to work.

Still, it’s important to note that 195 nations so far have made this a priority—that’s a good thing. And hopefully, after this event, we won’t ever need have to have this kind of meeting ever again.


Hundreds of pairs of shoes are displayed at the place de la Republique, in Paris, as part of a symbolic and peaceful rally. AP Photo/Laurent Cipriani