The Man Who Pays His Way: To save the planet, why travel to the ends of the Earth?

  • @SimonCalder

Surely this is the optimum holiday destination: "Nusa Dua has some of the most beautiful and luxurious resorts and hotels in this planet, gracefully integrating with the beauty of the white beaches and clear water into the landscape of the properties." Yet this assertion isn't taken from a brochure; it's the description from the official programme for the UN Climate Change Conference 2007.

Rio, Kyoto and now Bali: the people who are most concerned about man's effect on the environment have excellent taste in locations for global conferences. After choosing the finest cities in South America and Japan for previous forums, where next? The 10,000-plus climate scientists, activists and journalists have converged on the loveliest island in Indonesia (I'm guessing here I haven't visited all 17,000 isles to check) to ratchet up the debate on the future of the planet.

Bali is a centre of excellence but for indolence, not for climate science. Accordingly, almost every one of the attendees will need to travel to the island. And how will they get there? The conference programme has no doubt: "Air transport is the easiest and most comfortable means of travel to Indonesia." And, handily, "Nusa Dua is only 20 minutes driving from Bali International Airport."

Now, while I never drive to or from an airport, I am fond of flying, which I find to be "the easiest and most comfortable means of travel" to a wide range of destinations. I am a pure mathematician by training, not a climate scientist, hence unable to predict precisely the effects of flying on the temperature of the Earth. But let us assume that everything the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says about the disproportionately damaging effects of aviation on the planet is correct. In this case the decision to stage the event in Bali represents either rank incompetence or the height of hypocrisy.

Wheather you seek no-star economy or five-star luxury, Bali is an alluring destination that should be on every traveller's wish-list. In recent years the island has twice been the scene of terrorist attacks aimed at tourists. The Balinese deserve all the conference and leisure trade they can muster to recover from the massacres of 2002 and 2004. But their island is about the silliest place imaginable to stage a conference where delegates will earnestly discuss man's impact on Earth, and admonish people like me for our environmental thoughtlessness. The delegates will have, collectively, flown around 100 million miles to converge on a hard-to-reach corner of a distant country.

"Hard-to-reach" and "distant" depend, of course, on where you start. Even for the average Indonesian, residing in the middle of the island of Java, Bali is a long way away; the capital, Jakarta, would be a better choice.

"Think global, act local," is a favourite slogan of our times; the people who have converged on Bali from around the planet can enjoy plenty of amusements in the vicinity of the conference centre between doses of dire predictions. The programme reveals that that the auditorium is "connected through an air-conditioned shopping arcade with The Westin Resort (the main venue hotel)". So the people sweating over global warming can cool off with some light retail therapy.

The last time I stayed in Bali, I paid about 2 a night for a beachside hut. The guardians of the globe are aiming higher. Their air-conditioned debating chambers are "surrounded by some of Bali's finest five-star hotels and resorts... and within walking distance of fantastic shopping, entertainment, restaurants, a championship golf course and a host of other recreational facilities."

If you are flying the 15,000-mile round trip from Britain and back to attend a climate-change conference, it makes sense to see as much as you can of your destination.

As the UN says, Indonesia is a "melting pot [of] different communities, benefiting from centuries of peaceful coexistence" (though this may come as news to victims of violence across the archipelago from Sumatra to Timor). With this in mind, the conference programme offers a variety of excursions including one to the neighbouring island of Lombok.

This diminutive and serene isle is an obvious choice, because the distance across the strait is about the same as from Portsmouth to Cherbourg across the English Channel, with plenty of ferries plying the route.

Astonishingly, the official UN advice is to fly. Delegates will be "picked up from the hotel in Bali for transfer to airport" for a flight that lasts less than half an hour rather like flying across the Channel.

Once in Lombok, at least you can finally see something more rustic than a five-star resort or championship golf course. In the village of Sade, you will visit "the unique traditional lodge with its buffalo -dung floors".

A similar phrase to "buffalo dung" should be applied to the protestations of the organisers of the UN Climate Change Conference 2007. They profess to be deeply concerned about the future of the planet yet they invite the world to an event staged in a carbon-hungry destination and then encourage wasteful side-trips.

Can an organisation that fails to see anything wrong with promoting unnecessary flying seriously claim to set an example to the rest of us?

The conference organisers ceded the moral high ground in favour of the mile-high club even before the event began; they are apparently content to plunder the planet in the name of preserving it.

Birmingham beats bali for ideal venue

If you accept that the greatest concentrations of climate scientists reside in western Europe and North America, you can then venture a guess at the global "centre of gravity" for expertise on the subject. I estimate it is to be located is somewhere west of Ireland. The mid-Atlantic is not a convenient venue for the conference, given that no cruise ship has yet been built that could carry so many concerned climate activists. Instead, the ideal venue is a city that European delegates can reach without flying, and that has reasonable air links with the rest of the world. The ideal site for a conference seeking "breakthrough in the form of a roadmap for a future international agreement on enhanced global action to fight climate change" isn't Bali; it's Birmingham.

But the West Midlands has one drawback; not the absence of Bali's "white beaches and clear water", nor a less-agreeable December climate, but the fact that it is a long way from the planet's greatest concentrations of population.

If the UN's concern is to avoid disenfranchising would-be delegates from poorer parts of the world, Bali remains a bizarre choice: to minimise the amount of air travel, the city of Kathmandu, Guangzhou or Calcutta would be a fair choice, but evidently none of these great cities appeals to the UN's high-flying climate clique.