Off to Asia again: but is it immoral for a conservationist to travel this much?


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I’m starting this on another long-haul flight to Beijing on my way to Mongolia. It’s at this early stage of another mission that I wonder why I do this: I leave family (this time for over six weeks), I assault my body with the stresses of jetlag and extreme tiredness, and try to combine the normal workload with days spent in morning-to-night meetings and field trips. To be sure, the World Bank allows me to fly business class, which eases the physical problems – but with more space and power sockets in the seat, my managers get their ‘pound of flesh’ from me and I get loads of emails written and read.

But is it hypocritical and “immoral” for a conservationist to be traveling like this?

I’ve been thinking about this question of morality after reading the editorial in the most recent issue of Oryx, the journal of Fauna and Flora International, a conservation NGO I’ve been a member of for nigh on 40 years. The editorial is by Bill Adams and is entitled ‘Conservation, carbon and transition to sustainability’(pdf).

In this article, Professor Adams recounts how conservationists have tended to see climate change as something slow-moving and ‘out there’, and some of the measures being proposed for its mitigation as providing exciting new ways of finding substantial financing for biodiversity conservation activities. Biodiversity conservation has seemed strangely separate from the sustainably agenda (pdf). He had been at an overseas meeting, and in a conversation with colleagues the discussion turned to who should bear responsibility for reducing emissions.

If one looks at the exhortations by conservation organizations it is clear that they are directed to individuals, businesses and governments. Some businesses now make their carbon footprint public with the intention of monitoring this and (hopefully) seeing the footprint reduce in size, at least relative to output. Interestingly, having looked on the websites of WWF International, IUCN, BirdLife International, Conservation International, Wetlands International and Fauna and Flora International, I cannot find any such recording of their own contribution to greenhouse emissions – though I may have simply missed them. Most of them do, however, explicitly recognize they should be reducing their own carbon emissions.

Even the most casual reader will have noticed that there might be the slightest hint of hypocrisy in the above given that the World Bank is quick to say that it is The World's Largest Financier of Biodiversity, and we are undeniably a leader in the dynamic world of climate change finance. A publication launched at the recent IUCN congress by my colleague Kathy MacKinnon, Biodiversity, Climate Change, and Adaptation Nature-Based Solutions from the World Bank Portfolio (pdf), shows clearly how the basic work of our projects serves the objectives of climate change actions. Biodiversity conservation is good for adapting to and even mitigating climate change effects. Still, does that give me a right to go jetting off around the world?

Are we leading the way in emissions reductions too? Where on the World Bank’s website can the public find details of its own carbon footprint, or at least that of its 238 environmental staff? The information is on the website, but you have to be a real sleuth to find out that the World Bank Group’s Washington, DC staff alone is responsible for at least 400 million miles of official air travel each year – or that all this travel is offset through the purchase of carbon credits. We use the UK DEFRA emissions factors to calculate the emissions and we always round up, hoping through that process to cover more of the miles that we are not capturing in our tracking systems.

In 2009 World Bank travel is being offset through support of two projects: one is a biogas project which works with small farmers in South India; the other is an energy efficiency project in a district heating plant in Pernik, Bulgaria. In past years, we have offset our travel emissions through afforestation projects in Moldova and Costa Rica using mixtures of local species. Such offsetting is simple and is a genuine attempt to do something, but our – and most other – schemes seek to compensate only for the additional carbon emissions resulting from our travel (at least until the trees decompose one day in the future) rather than actually reducing the amount of atmospheric carbon which we know is already too high. And some offset schemes trade off social and environment benefits for carbon sequestration benefits by planting fast-growing non-native species of trees.

One way we try to reduce the environmental (and monetary) cost of travel is to promote the use of live video and audio links. A couple of weeks ago, I was part of a remarkable 3-hour meeting with NGOs, government partners and fellow World Bank staff to discuss the progress of the Global Tiger Initiative. Washington, D.C., was video-linked to New Delhi, Kathmandu, Beijing, Jakarta, and Bangkok, and we had audio links to London and Cambridge, UK, New York, Geneva, Bern and Nairobi. More than 50 people were connected. The costs of all meeting up together would have been horrendous. It was a good meeting – of its type – but way less useful than being face to face with one’s colleagues. Within a day or two of reaching my distant destinations I reconfirm to myself the usefulness of actually being there, rather than writing emails to people there or seeing them move jerkily like robots across large TV screens.

The World Bank also has had an ambitious program of ensuring that its facilities are powered by renewable energy as far as possible; that rooms have activity detectors which shut off lights accidentally left burning; that its procurement policies for paper and furniture are green; that it encourages staff to leave their cars at home and use shared or public transport to commute; and that its waste and left-over food from the canteens are dealt with appropriately.

Now in Mongolia, I am working on the preparation of a forest landscape project which may include a tourism component. If all were to work well, more foreign and domestic tourists would visit fascinating areas within a day’s drive of the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. How "moral" is that in terms of encouraging more long-haul flights? If we were to focus purely on domestic tourism development, how moral is it to determine not to help bring tourist dollars into what is undeniably a poor country? And if these dollars don’t flow, there would be one less reason to conserve the remaining forests. If the trees are lost, the permafrost beneath them will melt and the carbon-rich soils will decompose releasing considerable quantities of carbon dioxide.

An observant reader will detect that I’m skirting around dealing with the question I posed myself at the start of this piece. Of course, ideally, I should live closer to the countries where I work and I’ll pursue that option because that would make a radical difference to my own carbon footprint, offset or not. The Bank’s East Asia and Pacific region is now enormously decentralized with 69 percent of its full-time staff living and working in member countries. Failing that, I should logically spend longer periods away from home, but I’m not prepared to do that (given that my ‘contract’ with my wife is a better deal and for longer than that with the World Bank).

So, I accept the challenge of working towards a de-carbonized world, and I’ll do what I can to juggle the demands. Adams suggests at the end of his editorial (pdf) that conservationists should at least make an effort to perform carbon audits of their work so that they and others can see the carbon value of their efforts. But the wider objectives of preventing extinctions and building capacity must surely be calculated into this so the calculation would be fraught the problems. But that is no reason to back away from the idea.

I must keep thinking. What do you think? Please respond by commenting below.


Join the Conversation

Ben Bland
February 19, 2009

Tony - your post demonstrates the futility of individuals/specific organisations trying to tackle climate change in isolation.

Although it's better to offset than not, the offset business is one of diminishing returns and is not the answer in the long term.

If organisations like the World Bank want to effect behavioural change, they need to lead from the front and cut emissions rather than just offsetting them.

The problem, as you mention, is that video conferences and emails don't really allow you to communicate as effectively as face-to-face meetings.

You make a good case for justifying your carbon emissions but the problem is that if climate change is left up to individuals, most people can come up with a valid utilitarian reason to travel.

Even if it's just tourism, you can argue that you are investing in said country (esp if it's a developing nation) or that you are taking a much needed break so that you can work more efficiently when you return.

February 19, 2009

Dear Tony,

indeed, I share the overall message of the previous comment. We should accept that Business-as-usual is simply not acceptable.
The problem, of course, is that no one, and certainly no institution wants to be the first to give up the great benefit of being in the right place at the right time. So, the second best option is to reduce the impact. A glorious retrofit.
And I speak from experience. I opted for carbon compensation for my own wedding - rather than give up the pleasure of having our friends around.

Unless governments agree to regulate the number of flights per capita, or per institution, we will not solve the problem anytime soon. The benefits of being present, and the chance to retrofit, will continue to prevail.

The failure, I suspect, lies a little earlier in the chain of cause and effect. Having spent decades debating the scientific case for or against 'man made' global warming, we have lost precious time to make the point across all people and all nations that we should reduce our footprint - carbon and all. Hence, even if a very weak second-best, raising awareness about our individual and institutional carbon footprints is certainly important. Sadly.

Olivia Bina
Chinese University of Hong Kong

John Andrew Burton
February 23, 2009

Like you I am frequently asked similar questions. But since my entire work is concerned with trying to conserve what is left of the world's natural carbon storehouses, whether it's rainforest or Dry Chaco, or regenerating forests, I don't see to much hypocricy in travel to implement the projects. On a personal level, I have made the biggest contribution an individual can make, and that was voluntary sterilization before reproduction. The effect on future carbon emmissions is incalculable. Let's not beat about the bush. Flying is not the problem, it's a symptom. Breeding more humans is the real problem.

Tony Whitten
February 24, 2009

Clearly there are obvious answers but no simple ones. I just hope we can adapt to the future soon and without too much pain. I'm not sure than any individual action in the right direction is ever entirely futile. Another matter to discuss!

B.C. Albaghetti
February 25, 2009

While it is meritorious that you struggle with issues of this type, I suspect that both Adams' editorialized abduction --in the Prior Analytics sense-- and its reduction to your travel approach the 'yuk response' reaction, described by the bioethicist Arthur Kaplan to explain positions based on moral heuristics instead of dispassionate scrutiny of the information.

Now, putting aside conceptual differences between morality and ethics, consider the following (which is based mostly on data published on 2005 by the World Resources Institute):

First, 14% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are produced by land, air, and maritime transport -- this is equivalent to 18% of the global CO² emissions. Although aviation is indeed the fastest growing GHG source in the transport sector, it is associated with just ca. 12% of the GHGs for this sector and 1.6% of the global ones. (The atmospheric impact of aviation may be boosted by non-GHG high altitude effects, but these are uncertain and hard to quantify.) To put this in context, the global GHGs associated with cement manufacturing are nearly 2.5 times those of air transport, and those of maritime transport are twice as high.

Second, international air transport itself is associated with only a little more than half the overall aviation GHGs.

Third, unlike cars, airplanes have a long design life, and an ecologically friendly alternative to kerosene for jet air transport is not even in the cards; the more recent Boeing and Airbus jet plane models and near future models will remain in continuous use for many years to come. Even pressure on the aviation industry for cleaner travel would not modify the status quo -- air transport, especially for international passenger travel, is likely to remain unchanged at least during much of the current century.

Fourth, under current conditions, unless you own a jet or it is otherwise at your service, deciding whether to take or not an international flight has no impact at all --except for the rare case when otherwise there would be not enough passengers to justify flying-- on the GHG total that particular plane will generate over its long design life.

Applying moral heuristics to complex situations like this, especially when a full understanding of the mechanisms governing CO² concentration has not been achieved, does not work well. Personal travel choices and their atmospheric impact regarding a commercial airplane differ very much from those regarding one's car. Not taking that long-haul flight (and therefore not increasing your own per-capita GHGs) would assuage your conundrum, but this would do nothing for the planet since the jet you did not board will still produce the GHGs during the flight you decided not to take. At the same time, not taking the flight would likely not allow you to help in biodiversity preservation.

I would think the choice is clear.

February 26, 2009

Dear Tony,

You say: "Are we leading the way in emissions reductions too? Where on the World Bank’s website can the public find details of its own carbon footprint, or at least that of its 238 environmental staff? The
information is on the website, but you have to be a real sleuth[...]"

I beg to disagree. It would seem that amid the bellows of the battle between traveling or not you did not try the search in the Bank's home page. Searching for "carbon footprint" results in a list, whose third and fifth entries link to documents providing information on the Bank's footprint. Specifically, the fifth entry (, a document of April 19, 2007, tells us about the Bank greening efforts.

In fact, it was on June 5, 2006, World Environment Day, that the World Bank Group became carbon neutral.

Love your blog

Tony Whitten
March 07, 2009

Dear Colleague

Thanks for this lead. Strange I didn't pick this up though I remember seeing this page when it was released. Even so, I note that it was issued nearly two years ago. IS the assessment that was being written now public? Do we know what the Bank's footprint targets are and when they are expected to be met?


April 21, 2009

Dear Tony,
I believe that the benefits of you travelling to Mongolia will outway the damages caused by many folds provided that your advice and consultations are implemeted and given results in the future. In most of the cases, the pilot projects are not followed up and no outscaling of results are done due to shortages of funding from local governments (especially here in Mongolia) and no interests of donor organizations to do so either. Hence, I think that the projects implemented by donors, especially by WB has to for a long term,with miltiple phases so that the real results can be sustained.

Also I do agree with you that seeing people face to face and talking to them is far more effective than talking from a distance through video conferences.
Hope your mission in Mongolia goes well.
With best

Tony Whitten
April 22, 2009

I appeciate your comment and I will endeavour all I can to see that our projects are as good as possible.

Watch out for my next blog which will be on Mongolia.