UN Climate Fund Approves Business Class Travel--With Higher Carbon Footprint

By Patrick Goodenough | October 23, 2013 | 4:27 AM EDT

Singapore Airlines’ business-class cabin (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

(CNSNews.com) – The U.N.’s $100 billion Global Climate Fund, currently establishing itself but struggling to attract donor support, has adopted a travel policy that will allow eligible board members to fly business class on trips of more than nine hours’ duration.

“The Fund is committed to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions [carbon dioxide and other substances blamed for climate change] arising from its travel operations,” reads the policy, adopted at a GCF board meeting in Paris this month.

It mandates economy class for flights shorter than nine hours, and encourages train travel “wherever this is a viable option.”

A World Bank study this year concluded that, for purposes of calculating the amount of CO2 emitted during a flight, the “footprint per mile” for a premium (first or business) class seat is “substantially greater than for economy class.”

This is because premium class seats are heavier, premium class passengers have a bigger baggage allowance, and their seats take up aircraft floor space disproportionate to the number of passengers they accommodate.

The authors noted that although most major institutions now accept the principle of “offsetting” carbon emissions from staff travel, none “has to date any offset program based on calculations developed in this report.”

One popular online carbon calculator says a return flight from Paris, France to Seoul, South Korea – a direct flight of 11 hours – racks up 1.57 tons CO2-equivalent (CO2e) when flown on economy class, but it jumps to 4.56 tons when flown on business class.

The Green Climate Fund was launched in 2011 as a result of an agreement reached at a Dec. 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen. It aims to help developing countries curb greenhouse gas emissions and cope with phenomena blamed on climate change, such as droughts and rising sea levels.

The ambitious project is meant to raise $100 billion a year from public and private sources by 2020. As of June 30, 2013, it had received pledges and contributions amounting to just $9 million – just $1.7 more than it reported the previous October. Of that, $7.5 million had been actually received, from 10 donor countries (seven in Europe plus South Korea, Japan and Australia).

Undeterred by the apparent lack of early success, the board said in a statement that fundraising would begin “within three months of the adoption of a set of key policies and procedures that enable the fund to receive, manage and disburse funds.”

“We are getting ready for business,” said the fund’s Tunisian executive director Hela Cheikhrouhou after the meeting, which was described as having “marked the end of the interim phase.”

Meanwhile, for the 2014 calendar year the GCF has proposed a budget of $18.8 million, of which $11.8 million will cover consultancies and salaries for secretariat staff, comprising up to five directors, 31 mid- to senior-level posts, two entry-level posts, 10 support staff, and the executive director.

Travel for 2014 is budgeted at $904,500:  $814,500 to get attendees to and from board meetings and $90,000 for secretariat travel.

The board comprises 12 members, plus 12 alternate members, from developing countries; and 12 members, plus 12 alternate members, from developed countries. Board members who will be eligible for funded travel are the 12 from developing countries, plus their 12 alternate members.

Also eligible for funded travel are 24 advisors (one for each of the funded board members) plus any civil society or non-governmental organization (NGO) representatives from developing countries whose participation as “active observers” has been approved by the board.

For the 24 funded board members, “the class of service will be business class for travel times exceeding nine hours,” the travel policy says. Advisors and observers” “will travel least costly (usually economy class), regardless of the travel time.”

The board meeting in France was the fifth since August 2012, with earlier ones held in Switzerland, Germany, and twice in South Korea which is set to become the GCF secretariat’s permanent headquarters. The next meeting is scheduled for February 2014 in Indonesia.

‘Climate neutral’

According to the U.N.’s 2007 “climate neutral strategy,” U.N. bodies are urged “to undertake efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to the greatest extent possible.”

“Air travel is consistently reported to be the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions for UN agencies, representing slightly over 50 percent of total emissions on average,” says the latest edition of an annual report on “the U.N.’s footprint and how to reduce it.”

The report lists CO2-equivalent emissions for 49 U.N. entities for 2012. The average across the 49 is 7.3 tons per staff member.

In the breakdown, many U.N. bodies fall below that average – for example, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded just 2.5 tons CO2e per staff member and the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) 4.0 tons.

But among those recording CO2 emissions higher than the average were three agencies responsible for the environment. They were the U.N. Environment Program (9.3 tons per staff member), the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (13.6 tons) and the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification (topping the list at 26 tons). The GCF is not listed.

For those three agencies, the proportion of the emissions recorded as having arisen from staff air travel was 88 percent, 98 percent and 97 percent respectively.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow