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Challenge at a Climate Conference: Keeping It Green

Category: Business,Finance

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not easy going green. Offer electric buses and some still choose hulking Chevy Suburbans. Require paperless brochures and some hawk their colorful booklets.

At the Global Climate Action Summit, a three-day gathering here this week, organizers wanted the mayors, governors, international leaders and others attending to show the world that a large convention in a big city needn’t leave carbon footprints all over.

The panel discussions, speakers and networking events drew more than 4,000 people to dozens of venues to push for efforts to curb carbon emissions in support of the Paris climate agreement. Local and state governments across the country have committed to the accord despite President Trump’s declaration that he would withdraw the United States from it.

Few places could prove more fitting for such a challenge than this city, which prides itself on recycling campaigns and restaurants that don’t offer plastic straws.

For the convention, name tags were produced with recycled paper. Program details appeared in digital formats. Solar panels powered registration booths and metal detectors. Event-sponsored transportation focused on bicycles, cars and buses that ran entirely on electricity.

“The more that we normalize the behaviors that we want to see, the easier it becomes,” said Jaime Nack, the conference’s director of sustainability.

But the conference proved that even those in the green space sometimes cling to carbon-based conveniences.

City Councilman Mike O’Brien of Seattle noted that some attendees commuted in oversize sport utility vehicles, while he grabbed an electric bike on multiple occasions to get around.

“To be fair, there are mayors and governors,” he said. “I’m a just a City Council member.”

The chairman of his Council’s transportation committee, Mr. O’Brien figured he would lead by example to avoid adding to the congestion on the clogged thoroughfares, though others didn’t reflect the same conviction.

“This is the first time I’ve used a public one,” Mr. O’Brien said of the electric bike. “I went to visit a friend up one of these hills. These things kick butt. I was pretty impressed.”

While not all government and other executives took part in the greening of the convention, others made an effort, even if it didn’t look exactly the way the event’s organizers would have liked.

Mayor Alan Webber of Santa Fe, N.M., tried to do his part, but he did it alone. On the full-size electric bus with its flashing digital sign proclaiming “zero emissions,” Mr. Webber was the lone passenger on the one-and-a-half-mile shuttle from the Fairmont Hotel to the main conference location at the Moscone Center, a route that often had few riders.

“It’s important to send the right signals, to do the right thing,” Mr. Webber said.

The difficulty of aligning the conference’s ethos with its execution was not lost on protesters who gathered outside some of the events Wednesday and Thursday.

Adam Scow, California director at the environmental group Food and Water Watch, who helped lead the two days of protests, said some companies sponsoring the conference also funded or approved of projects that added to carbon emissions.

Mr. Scow, for example, criticized Gov. Jerry Brown for allowing increased oil drilling and continued use of natural-gas fracking, while the governor also takes credit for signing a measure into law this week that mandates 100 percent carbon-free electricity in the state by 2045. The law has been viewed as a bold step for California, the largest state to adopt such a measure and the second over all.

“We’re not getting enough walk, and we’re getting too much talk,” Mr. Scow said. “Until we decrease oil and gas production, we’re not going to meet the challenge of climate change.”

But conference organizers portrayed the gathering as part of the drive toward a carbon-free future. It has been an occasion for participants to make commitments to reduce carbon. And on the periphery, there were smaller initiatives.

Restaurants in the city noted organic menus that often use local food producers, a practice that helps reduce carbon emissions from shipping. And the ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber, both based here, made their own gestures.

Uber offered bonuses to drivers with electric cars who picked up conference attendees from the Moscone Center.

Brian Oden, a 41-year-old San Jose resident who drives an electric car — a Chevrolet Bolt — got an email from Uber on Monday offering $10 a ride extra for rides he provided on Thursday and Friday.

“I plan to do it all day,” Mr. Oden said.

As part of the conference’s last day, an electric car was to begin a journey from California to New York in hopes of rallying the nation to support efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

“America is one of the only countries where climate change is polarized,” said João Talocchi of the Purpose Climate Lab, which is behind the car trip. “We need to change perceptions.”


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