Motorcade

There won’t be hybrids or electric vehicles in the motorcades at Copenhagen.

As an estimated 30,000 people flood the Danish city of Copenhagen for the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, critics are questioning why a climate conference has a carbon footprint larger than most small countries. More than 40,000 tons of carbon are expected to enter the atmosphere as a result of the conference, with most coming from transportation. Leaders and officials flew about 140 private jets to the summit, and are riding in approximately1,200 gas-guzzling limos while there.

While the symbolic act of low-emissions travel may not mean much—witness Ford, GM and Chrysler executives driving hybrids to Washington last year—the fact that organizers were unable to “green” the conference in any substantive way is troubling. It’s been more than 10 years since Kyoto, when nearly every government in the world came together and agreed that carbon emissions must be significantly reduced to prevent catastrophic climate change. Though awareness has grown and some action has been taken, it’s very telling that even the wealthy and powerful still can’t find low-carbon transportation options for a conference that is unlikely to produce much more than a few handshakes.

Limousine service operators in Copenhagen say that only five of the cars they plan to rent this week are hybrids, a dearth they blame on high import taxes. A number of auto companies, including Mercedes, Honda, Citroen and Think, reportedly provided a few dozen electric and alternative fuel vehicles—but those primarily are for demonstration.

Wheels of Progress, Two Instead of Four

“We want to be a test and laboratory country for electric cars, hybrid cars and other new technology,” said Lars Barfoed, the Danish minister of transport, prior to the meeting. “And as host of the climate change conference, that’s made us feel responsible and want to show the world we can do something.” The Danish government backs this promise with a $40,000 tax break on each new electric car—and free parking in downtown Copenhagen. But the number of electric cars on the road today is miniscule.

In January 2009, Shai Agassi of Better Place, a California-based start-up dedicated to building the world’s electric car infrastructure, promised that Denmark would have 100,000 charging spots in place and several thousand cars on the road by 2010. But the company failed to produce a single electric (via its partnership with Nissan-Renault), and only 55 charging spots, by the time of the conference.

The lack of green cars on the ground in Copenhagen suggests that Denmark’s transition to climate-friendly cars is way behind schedule—and that the hybrid and electric car revolution throughout the world will be dictated by market realities rather than photo opportunities and government grandstanding. Then again, for generations, Copenhagen has been one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Perhaps the most important symbolic act that President Obama could take is to travel by bicycle during his visit next week for the wrap-up of the Copenhagen convention. Even if nothing substantive comes out of the meeting, at least Obama would demonstrate a personal commitment to slightly reducing his own carbon footprint.