Flight of Fancy

Every year there is a meeting of national delegates of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The schedule was broken by COVID restrictions and no meeting was held in 2020. A couple of years ago I posted some comments on the meeting held in Poland in 2018 (http://www.climatedata.info/blogger/index.php?id=6854117018301138519). The last meeting to be held took place 2–13 December 2019 in Madrid, Spain

During the previous meeting of the COP, 60 of the participating countries had no temperature stations in the GCHM (Global Historical Climatology Network) data base and only 15 of the 193 parties had more climate stations than members. In COP25 the equivalent numbers were 72 countries with no temperature stations and only 11 countries had more temperature station than delegates. So, in terms of data availability for assessing what was happening to the climate, the situation was clearly getting worse.

Disturbing though these figures are, this is not what I want to concentrate on. With one notable exception the delegates would have flown to Spain to take part in the meeting and have flown home afterwards. The exception of course was Greta Thunberg who, interestingly but in a different way, was making the point that I am about to make. Air travel is significant source of greenhouse gases and the meeting of the UNFCCC involved a lot of air travel. How much? Let’s see.

For the distance flown by delegates I based my estimates mainly on the web site ‘distancefromto.net. I assumed that delegates from Spain and neighbouring countries would have travelled by land. There were 6,048 delegates from 197 states. On average each delegate flew 11,700 km. Sixteen of the delegations clocked up more than 1 million air km. Heading the list was Indonesia whose 142 delegates flew an estimated 12376 km each way making a grand total 3.5 million air kilometres. Bangladesh, 1.96 million km of flights, and Tonga, 1.38 million km, have no climate stations in the data base. In total the delegations clocked up 71.3 million air miles. Before you get apoplectic at these figures – cool down – there’s worse to come.

The total attendance at COP25 was 22,354, made up of 11,414 representing states and organisations, 8,775 representing observer organisations and 2,165 from the media. So, the 71.3 million km clocked up by the country delegates were only part of the total. I realise that it is not possible to assume that other participants averaged the same distance as those representing countries. An analysis of those delegates who came from a named country suggested an average distance of 7,300 km, much less than flown by delegates. So, to get the total additional air miles I will use a distance of 7,000 km and exclude the media. That gives a value of 14,121 participants whose air km come to 198 million air km.

The COP 25 meeting of the UNFCCC in 2019, with the ostensible aim of saving the planet, led to an extra 269 million kilometres of flights.

The CO2 emissions per air passenger are around 105 g per kilometre flown. So, COP 25 led to 28,450 tonnes of CO2 being added to the atmosphere. Let’s put this into perspective.

Scotland, where the next meeting will be held, has 2.5 million cars. The average UK car travels 11800 km/year or 32 km/day. CO2 emissions average 125 gm CO2 per km. So, at the time of the meeting the daily CO2 emission of all the cars in the Scotland will be 10,000 tonnes per day. In other words, by comparison with other measures of CO2 emission, COP 25 was a significant polluter.

To believe that such blatant hypocrisy would convince anyone to reduce their business or holiday flights is indeed a ‘flight of fancy’.


1.     The details of participation were taken from ‘The List of Participants’ (https://unfccc.int/documents/184482) which was published on 13 December 2019.

2.    The number of climate stations used for temperature data was taken from the file ‘ghcnm.tavg.v4.0.1.20210928.qcu.dat’ downloaded on 29 September 2021. GHCN stands for “Global Historical Climatology Network” and is the largest data base of global monthly temperature.

1.     The values for fuel consumption and car use represent typical values taken from more than one site. 

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