Each year, the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties convenes to address climate change and agree on goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. President Biden, U.S. delegates, and others traveled by air to attend the 26th Conference in the U.K. in 2021 and the 27th Conference in Egypt in 2022.
An executive order requires federal agencies to track and reduce emissions from air travel and other sources with the goal of achieving net-zero government emissions by 2050. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the State Department did not calculate emissions from travel to these conferences.
According to the State Department’s official list, 191 people from the Executive Branch traveled to the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) as members of the U.S. delegation. The official list for 27th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP27) reported that 259 people from the Executive Branch were in the U.S. delegation.
According to the United Kingdom government’s report, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation travel to COP26 were significant in comparison to estimated total emissions from the event. According to this report, approximately 72 percent of the greenhouse gas calculated residual emissions from the event came from international aviation.
State officials told GAO that they did not have a systematic way to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. delegation travel to COP26, COP27 or any past meetings of the Conference of the Parties. The officials told GAO that the State Department does not have the data to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from the full delegation travel to Conference of the Parties meetings because each participant makes their own travel arrangements using the travel management systems of their agency. Further, they said that the White House has information about which officials traveled on Air Force One, but State does not have access to that information.
Federal agencies are required by executive order to track and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation travel and other sources. Specifically, the December 2021 Executive Order 14057 on Catalyzing Clean Energy Industries and Jobs through Federal Sustainability sets an overall goal for the federal government to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions economy wide by no later than 2050.
While the COVID-19 global pandemic necessitated high level ministerial meetings to be held virtually, the Department of State says there is no substitute for attending Conference of the Parties meetings in person, because negotiations are complex and typically run all day and night for a number of days. Department officials told GAO that informal side discussions are an essential mode of reaching agreement and that such interactions would be almost impossible to replicate in a virtual setting. State officials added that meetings of the annual Conference of the Parties are considered to be important gatherings for the numerous organizations that have a strong stake in the outcomes of the deliberations, and they attract thousands of academic experts, civil society leaders, nongovernmental organization advocates, business and labor leaders, and government officials. State officials also commented that emissions from aviation travel to meetings of the UN Conferences of the Parties paled in comparison to emissions reductions achieved at these meetings.
The State Department is developing methods to estimate future travel emissions, according to the officials, and is also working to reduce the department’s greenhouse gas emissions from its operations, including emissions from all travel. Measures could include increasing direct flights where possible and encouraging the use of trains.