“These Meetings are Carbon Neutral” (Not!!)

This blog comes from Washington DC where the great and the good of the world of international finance –ministers of finance, central bankers, national and international financial bureaucrats, private financiers – and thousands of hangers-on have gathered for the 2007 Annual Meetings of the World Bank Group/IMF.

When you enter the main World Bank building, its Atrium is dominated by a huger banner proclaiming “These Meetings are Carbon Neutral”. Even a moment’s reflection makes it obvious that this statement cannot be true. Let’s take the counterfactual (the benchmark against which carbon-neutrality will be judged), to be an otherwise identical world in which the 2007 Annual Meetings are cancelled (well ahead of time) and not replaced with any other similar event or set of smaller-scale regional events.

For those attending the Annual Meetings who are normally based in Washington DC anyway, I will assume that the carbon footprint is unchanged. Actually, with the meetings cancelled there will be fewer meetings, less jumping in and out of taxis and less dining out on expense accounts, so even for the Washington DC crowd, cancelling the Meetings would, in all likelihood reduce CO2eq (Carbon dioxide- equivalent) emissions, but I am keen not to overegg my case.

For those coming to Washington DC for the Annual Meetings from elsewhere, the cancellation of the Meetings is likely to result in a reduction in CO2eq emissions when we compare their activities in Washington DC to their activities had they remained at home (playing with the children/grandchildren etc.). This is because expense-account living in DC (fine food and drink, air conditioned hotels and meeting venues, other official and unofficial activities) is likely to be more CO2eq-intensive than the activities likely to be pursued under the alternative scenario at home.

Finally, there is the carbon footprint associated with transporting many thousands of meeting participants to Washington DC. They come, literally, from all over the world. The vast majority travels by air. It is highly unlikely that the total number of flights is not higher under the Annual Meeting takes place scenario than under the Annual Meeting does not take place scenario. Likewise, the average load of passengers and luggage carried by a typical flight is likely to increase as a result of the Annual Meetings. CO2eq emissions are increasing in both the number of flights and in the load carried per flight.

So the statement “These Meetings are Carbon Neutral” is obviously untrue. That raises the question: are those who dreamt up this slogan lying, stupid or both?

The use “These Meetings are Carbon Neutral”, could be an application of the principle of lying attributed to Joseph Goebbels: “If you lie, lie big”. [1] With the Nobel for peace going to Al Gore and the IPCC, being green (or at any rate appearing to be green) is a good thing. If you can talk the talk but cannot walk the talk, just fake the walk.

Another possibility is that the World Bank’s definition of carbon-neutral is so ludicrously restrictive, that the statement is both correct and utterly misleading. It could mean no more than that the air conditioners have been turned down a few degrees, that the toilet paper is recycled and that so-called carbon offsets have been purchased by the organizers in an amount equal to the net CO2eq emissions created by the meetings. I have argued elsewhere that the carbon offset industry is a gigantic fraud and massive waste of resources.

The World Bank should take that banner down.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website