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Transforming hot air into renewable energy

(Keystone Archive)

The verdict is still out whether the 6,000 delegates and observers attending the United Nations Climate Conference in Nairobi will produce anything more than hot air.

But whatever the outcome of the two weeks of talks, the attendees are contributing to the warming of the atmosphere by simply flying to the Kenyan capital from the four corners of the earth.

According to the Swiss foundation, myclimate, each of the Swiss delegates - including this year's president, Moritz Leuenberger - is pumping an additional 2.29 tons of harmful emissions into the atmosphere with his or her return flight from Zurich to Nairobi alone.

Multiply that by the 6,000 delegates, assuming the distance between Zurich and Nairobi is the average each will be flying, and you have about 13,740 additional tons of greenhouse gases choking the planet.

Organisations like myclimate are aiming to help governments, businesses and private individuals offset emissions like these in the spirit of the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).

Under the CDM, an industrialised country with a greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction target can invest in carbon-offset projects in developing nations, and claim credit for the emission reduction. Experts say the mechanism could channel up to $100 billion (SFr124 billion) into developing nations.

myclimate, a non-profit organisation set up in 2002, provides appropriate certificates for CDM funds or companies that are obliged to meet emission reduction targets.

But it is also a platform for individuals, companies and organisations to offset their climate impact voluntarily.

Set example

If Leuenberger or any of the other Swiss delegates travelling to Nairobi wanted to set a good example, he or she could purchase a "myclimate ticket". Based on the number of kilometres flown, he or she would pay an additional SFr85 to go to Nairobi and back.

The money would then be used to boost the use of renewable energy. myclimate funds solar energy projects in the Himalayas, Costa Rica and Eritrea and schemes that use methane to produce electricity in South Africa and biomass in India.

"The projects must reduce emissions but also have a positive impact on the local community," Kathrin Dellantonio, head of communications at myclimate told swissinfo.

"They should create jobs, contribute to sustainable development and improve local environmental conditions."

The foundation won a contract with football's world governing body FIFA to help counteract the estimated 100,000 tons of GHG emissions produced at football's World Cup in Germany earlier this year. It chose to invest the FIFA money in two renewable energy projects in South Africa.

Biomass

One of the schemes, to replace coal with biomass fuel boilers at a citrus fruit processing plant, is expected to prevent more than 200,000 tons of harmful emissions over its ten-year lifetime.

Greenpeace Switzerland believes carbon offsetting is a good idea in cases where flying is unavoidable.

But Greenpeace's climate expert, Alexander Hauri, warns that the ultimate goal is to reduce and not just counteract emissions. That was also the message of the Stern Review released last month, a sobering report by a former World Bank chief economist.

Nicholas Stern warned of severe environmental and economic consequences for the planet if drastic action was not taken soon to reduce GHGs.

Hauri told swissinfo that carbon offset projects can be misused by people in wealthy countries like Switzerland to "absolve themselves of their [climate] sins". He said it would be much better to tax non-renewable energies.

In this way, people would be provided with a financial incentive to reduce emissions, he said.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

In brief

The non-profit organisation, myclimate, is one of several companies and foundations in the industrialised world specialising in offsetting carbon emissions. It is a leader in efforts to reduce the negative impact air travel has on the environment.

It started in 2002 when a group of students from Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology travelled to a sustainability conference in Costa Rica.

The students developed a "compensation mechanism" whereby conference participants were asked to fund a solar energy project in the host country.

The amount of money they were asked to contribute was based on the distance they had travelled to the conference.

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