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

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ImageI’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.


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