CALVIN CHAN, Associated Press
DAVOS, Switzerland (AP) — If you come to Davos this year, try taking a train instead of flying, organizers of the World Economic Forum said.
That meant a 12-hour drive from London to an exclusive meeting in the Swiss Alps that I help cover for the Associated Press.
Traveling by train is much less convenient than traveling by plane, but the landscape makes up for it – the hilly farm fields of England and France have given way to the high mountains of Switzerland and idyllic valleys dotted with chalets. And my carbon footprint will be much smaller than flying.
Political cartoons of world leaders
For many, Davos conjures up images of government leaders, billionaire elites and corporate titans flying in carbon-emission private jets, even as the meeting increasingly focuses on climate change.
The organizers have been stung by such criticism, and in recent years they have even dedicated a web page to debunk these allegations. Encouraging European participants to come by train is part of their effort to build up the sustainability event’s reputation amid criticism that it is just a discussion that does not lead to systemic change.
I’m not the first to ride the train. Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg famously traveled 32 hours by train to get to the 2019 Davos meeting, where she surprised attendees with a fiery speech. I’m also facing a broader wave of traveler interest in train travel versus climate-related short-haul travel.
My journey begins at London’s St Pancras International Station, where I board the Eurostar high-speed train, which takes me through the Channel Tunnel to Paris in about two and a half hours. There I take a short subway ride to another train station, from where the next four-hour leg to Zurich follows.
By plane, I would be stuck on a low cost flight from London Gatwick Airport for an hour and 40 minute flight to Zurich, the nearest airport to Davos.
But for those who do not live in Europe, traveling by plane is inevitable. And to speed up my journey after days of successive statesman speeches and sessions on decarbonization, the global economic outlook, and the impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine, that’s how I’ll be going home.
On board the French TGV high-speed train, first-class seating is comfortable and spacious, and the upper deck offers a pleasant view of the countryside speeding at 320 kilometers per hour (about 200 miles per hour).
If I were to fly, up to 197 kilograms (434 pounds) of carbon dioxide per passenger would be released into the atmosphere during my 870-kilometer journey.
According to ecopassenger.org, the same train ride will bring only a fraction of that amount – 12.2 kg.
World Economic Forum officials say climate is a priority for this year’s meeting and all of its environmental mandates.
“The vast majority of attendees arrive by shuttle or train, and emissions in Davos actually go down during the week of the meeting,” Adrian Monk, managing director of the forum, told reporters ahead of the event, without elaborating.
Organizers say they are offsetting 100% of the group’s carbon emissions from 2017 by supporting environmental projects in Switzerland and elsewhere. Experts say offsets can be problematic because there is no guarantee they will lead to emissions reductions.
The Forum can also provide sustainable aviation fuel at Zurich Airport for those flying private jets.
“This is probably one of the most sustainably organized gatherings in the world, if not the most sustainable,” Monk said.
High-profile attendees include US climate envoy John Kerry, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate and Alok Sharma, head of last year’s COP26 UN climate conference.
Kerry, who has been criticized for using a private jet owned by his wife’s family, will fly to the meeting in Davos on a commercial jet, his spokesman said.
Sharma, a British MP who came under fire last year for his frequent flights, will travel by plane and train.
“Carbon emissions associated with the travel of the president of the CC will be offset during the year of the presidency,” the UK government said, without providing further details.
Nakata declined to comment on her trip.
Aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions.
The World Economic Forum acknowledged that “From an environmental point of view, flying in a private jet is the worst way to get to Davos.”
Private jets emit about 10 times more carbon dioxide per person than commercial flights and about 50 times more than an equivalent train ride, says Jo Dardenne, aviation manager at Brussels climate policy group Transport & Environment.
Jet engines also emit soot and nitrous oxide, which contributes to air pollution around airports and trapping atmospheric heat traces, she said.
Sustainable jet fuel is a step in the right direction, depending on the source, but carbon offsetting deserves more skepticism because of concerns like double counting, she said.
“It is particularly socially and politically unfair for some sectors to continue to rely on offsets instead of actually reducing their emissions,” while others face pressure to reduce their climate impact, Dardenne said.
Aymeric Segard, CEO of Swiss private jet charter LunaJets, said some VIPs have no choice but to fly privately.
“Because of their visibility and the fact that everyone knows them, they just can’t take a commercial plane,” he said.
“Some do not have three free weeks to take a sailboat and cross the Atlantic, like our friend Greta. So what’s the alternative?
Segard declined to discuss what demand he sees for trips to Davos, but said his company, which acts as a taxi dispatcher for private jets, is trying to cut carbon emissions by looking for “empty flights” that are already chartered but have extra seats.
Not only is it cheaper, but “the planet is happy because the plane still had to fly, so at least we got someone on it,” he said.
At the main station in Zurich, I change again, this time on a slower commuter train. This is where most people can’t avoid the train heading to Davos, which has no airport, unless they take a shuttle or helicopter from Zurich or two other smaller nearby airports.
Fashionably dressed men with expensive-looking luggage boarded, telling others what panels they were part of in Davos.
The train goes around Lake Zurich and heads into the mountains. After another quick change at the local station, I have one last hour left, and with every mile the scenery becomes more impressive.
The narrow-gauge train rolls through steep valleys and along raging rivers, shaded by wooded peaks from chalets dotted along the grassy lower slopes, until it arrives in Davos. Here my journey ends, but my work for the week begins.
Kelvin Chen is a business columnist for AP in London. Follow him on http://twitter.com/chanman.
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