How Green Is Davos?

Visualization of CO2 in Davos

Photograph by Picarro Inc.

Visualization of CO2 in Davos

A big slogan around town this year is “Toward A Greener Davos,” the name of a WEF initiative aimed at “lowering the amount of pollutants” produced by the forum’s 2,600 participants and their entourages. This might seem like an exercise in environmental futility, given the number of private jets that deliver VIPs to Davos, the number of private cars that drive them around once they get here–and the general level of excess that attends all gatherings of the ruling class.

What’s more, says Michael Woelk, the President and CEO of Picarro, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based technology company, no one knows how green Davos was in the first place. “The conference talks about a greener Davos, but the question is, greener than what?” Woelk says. “We don’t know how green Davos is in 2012, because we don’t know what the level of emissions was in 2011. It’s like going on a diet and saying, I’m going to eat better, I’m going to exercise, but I’m not going to get on scale to see how much weight I’ve lost. At some point you have to get on that scale.”

That’s why Woelk brought one. His company manufactures and markets a briefcase-sized device that can measure, in real time, the precise amount of greenhouse gases in the air at a given location. Woelk has put two of those devices–which cost about $70,000–in the center of Davos to determine what impact the annual 20% population spike has on the city’s carbon footprint. The daily results are being tracked at citycarbon.picarro.com,  which Woelk called up on his iPad as we talked in between sessions at the Congress Centre. The Picarro hardware started measuring emissions several days before delegates arrived and will continue doing so after they leave. The initial readings have revealed that, even before the conference began, the level of greenhouse gases in the air was 22% higher than the local authorities’ most recent (and relatively unscientific) estimates.

The first batch of data on the WEF’s contribution to climate change will be released this weekend, Woelk says. He predicts that the absolute level of greenhouse gases will go up, but per-capita emissions in Davos may well decrease. Most of the participants walk or take buses to and from the conference center, and hotels are operating at capacity, thus raising their energy efficiency. Warmer temperatures will also mean less energy consumption and, as a result, lower greenhouse emissions.

Woelk says that the forum’s organizers “like what we’re doing, they’re supportive, but they’re not involved.” The obvious downside of openly endorsing Picarro’s results would be the obligation to abide by them, even if they reflected badly on the Annual Meeting. “A funny thing happens when I show people the data,” says Woelk. “No matter where they are on the environmental spectrum, it always elicits an emotional response and some concerns.” Davos is no different. “If I were running the WEF,” Woelk says, “I would want to wait until I saw what the data before I decided whether I liked it or not.”

Update: For another look at Picarro and the work it did in Davos, check out Measuring the Hot Air in Davos  on The Grid blog.

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