climate change politics

Why it’s okay to fly for international climate talks

The communications charity Climate Outreach released some research recently about how the upcoming COP26 climate talks are perceived in the UK. They found that awareness of them is very low, but that when explained, people are supportive. They understand the stakes, and after the experience of COVID-19, there is a possibility that “a more global mindset is emerging among the public.”

That’s all to the good, and anyone working on communications around the climate talks should download the paper and take its findings on board. However, one really annoying thing jumped out at me, and it’s this:

Over half those surveyed think it is unacceptable for global leaders to fly into the country for international climate talks. This grates on me for several reasons, and I think it’s worth digging into a little bit.

First of all, there’s a blazing double standard at work here. 47% say leaders shouldn’t fly to climate talks, but when you ask people in a general way if they think flying should be discouraged, only 32% agree. Surveys have consistently found that most people are unwilling to give up flying themselves.

In other words, it’s considered acceptable to fly on holiday, but not to the climate talks. Apparently there’s no shame in flying if you don’t care about climate change, only if you do – because then you’re a hypocrite. This is very silly and we need to be more grown up about it. Climate change needs us all to think about flying less, and the first place to start is learning to tell the difference between flights that matter and those that don’t. Is it ridiculous that some leaders will fly in on private jets? Of course it is. But if you’ve going to take one flight a year, this is the one to take.

Secondly, the reason given for not flying here is that video-conferencing is available, but there are multiple reasons why it’s not going to work at UN climate meetings. The organisers in Glasgow are planning for 25,000 participants to be involved in some way, with capacity for 10,000 on site at any one time. There are a huge number of sessions on all sorts of technicalities, often running at once and all being translated into multiple languages. Talks run for two weeks, often long into the night as deadlines approach. I find it hard to concentrate over a couple of hours in an online meeting. A fortnight of intense negotiation simply cannot be done online. If it could, COP26 would have happened in 2020 as planned, rather than being pushed back a year.

What’s more, when people suggest that the talks could be held online, they are extrapolating their own experience of online meetings across the world. How’s the internet access in Pakistan, Bolivia or Egypt? Inequalities in broadband access and reliability would marginalise many countries, often the ones most vulnerable to climate emergency.

Third, the value of being in the same room is considerable. Body language matters in negotiations, the ability the read the room, to signal dissent or agreement. Being present also builds relationships, which is invaluable for cooperation and trust. Among the most important person-to-person meetings are the ones between delegates in negotiating blocs, where collective positions are agreed. These would be difficult in an online setting, and again it would be the most vulnerable countries that would miss out. The presence of observers and civil society has also played an important role in keeping talks accountable, and this would be eliminated by doing things online.

The rights and wrongs of flying to the climate talks is going to come up as a topic. As someone who doesn’t fly, despite living a mile from an international airport, it feels odd to be defending flying. But there are good reasons why the world needs to come to Glasgow.


  1. On one note, it would seem that the more industrialized nations and the event organizers have already excluded a large portion of world leaders, noting “In a strongly worded statement, Climate Action Network (CAN) International, which represents more than 1,500 organizations from at least 130 countries, said that COP26, which is scheduled to take place in Glasgow, Scotland from November 1, “would de facto exclude many government delegates, civil society campaigners and journalists, particularly from Global South countries, many of which are on the U.K.’s Covid19 ‘red list’.””

    Apart from that, the issue is not so much with global leaders flying to these conferences, but with people hopping on board private jets, and not even “jet-pooling” as it were. Unless everyone were jumping on sailboats, venturing forth in boats would not be any more “sustainable” than jumping on planes, but with everyone jumping on their own private plane? The hypocrisy does not take long to begin stinking.

  2. I agree that everyone should be encouraged to reduce or eliminate their flying time, but the whataboutery in this article is pathetic. Political leaders and executives (and members of Royal families!) do fly too much, and they choose expensively polluting options too. I remember how Al Gore organized festivals in Washington and New York on the same day, and then turned up at both of them. Don’t know how he got there, but it certainly wasn’t on a pedal cycle and I doubt if it was by hot air balloon. Environmental writers and academics seem to have a penchant for air travel too, as though they think there are exempt from responsibility for carbon emissions. Remember Emma Thompson flying into London to take part in the Extinction Rebellion protest. Her excuse was that she had planted lots of trees. As a retired forester who has personally planted well over 100,000 trees, I wish she had stayed at home. Yes people do need to meet up and speak to each other in person, but I bet my bottom dollar that there were obscene amounts of waste deriving from this gathering. Why were lobbyists allowed anywhere near for a start?

    1. What whataboutery? You’ll have to be more specific.

      I agree 100% that there’s too much flying going on, including Al Gore and others. I’m not excusing that. But the idea that nobody should fly to COP is different. It’s not symbolic. It’s essential. And we should be able to tell the difference.

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