Could anything greater symbolise the rampant fossil-fuelled consumerism trashing our planet than the sight of a bevvy of billionaires competing to launch the first commercial space “tourism” flights? There was nearly zero mention of the eye-watering carbon costs of this new “tourism” in the media frenzy that accompanied Richard Branson’s space test-flight on Sunday.
The company attempted to shrug off climate criticism by admitting that each seat consumed the equivalent of a business seat flight from London to New York and that it was “offsetting” the emissions. What it did not say was that return business flights to New York consume around six tonnes of CO2 per person or three times what an economy seat would emit. This is over 7 times the annual electricity emissions of 0.8 tons per annum from a UK household. The average footprint per home in the UK, per year, is around 8.1 tonnes, according to the Committee on Climate Change’s 2014 estimates.
More importantly, it failed to mention the even worse possible impacts of space tourism by the super-elites. Some of those who can afford the £180,000 one-hour joyrides will likely be owners of private jets. Thus, for a London billionaire flying from the spaceport in Arizona, where the flights take place, you could potentially add another estimated 40 tonnes of CO2 for them flying there and back on their private jet from London. Thus the combined emissions could potentially exceed 46 tons or the equivalent of 57 years of household electricity emissions!
In Branson’s marketing statement he said: “I want people to be able to look back at our beautiful Earth and come home and work very hard to try to do magic to it to look after it.”
Unlike environmentally responsible bus passengers who must pay fuel duties, people who own jets have to pay no duty on jet fuel. Billionaires often find ways to pay the lowest rates of tax, and in some cases none at all. Whilst it is true that the number of people able to afford £180,000 for an hour’s joyride in the sky is limited, the real issue is how this extremist carbon consumption represents the tip of the huge unjust carbon emissions of the 1 per cent.
The UN’s Emissions Gap report from 2020 found that the world’s wealthiest 1 per cent account for more emissions than the poorest 50 per cent. An Oxfam report found that between 1990 and 2015, the richest 10 per cent blew through a full third of our remaining carbon budget to prevent global temperatures from rising above a disastrous 1.5C, while the poorest 50 per cent only consumed 4 per cent of the carbon budget.
A Cambridge Sustainability Commissions report estimated that the 1 per cent elite would need to cut their carbon emissions by a factor of 30 of their current emissions for humanity to stay within the limits agreed by the Paris Climate Agreement.
Branson and the other billionaires in the space “tourism” race (Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jezz Bezos) have plans to reintroduce global supersonic travel based on their research with space tourism. This would massively expand the emissions from the nascent industry.
Branson failed to note that while he went on a space joyride in Arizona, almost all of the state was suffering from extreme multi-year drought. In neighbouring Utah, the land was ablaze with record-breaking temperatures and wildfires. Two firefighters were killed while flying over the inferno, trying to assess the blaze.
It is clear that we have to radically curb the lifestyles of the super-rich. But before we get too smug, it is important to remember that about 50 per cent of the UK population rank among the richest 10 per cent globally, and so most of us have to make radical changes to our lifestyles also.
We need a ban on space tourism, private jets and unnecessary frequent flying or indeed any unnecessary flights until and unless a genuinely zero-carbon form of flight is developed. A frequent flyer tax – as proposed by the recent Climate Assembly – is a laudable first step; but many of the rich would simply be able to afford to pay it and continue their climate destruction.
The climate emergency merits actions even more urgent than those taken in the Second World War, where the rich had to pitch in like everyone else and share the rationing on transport fuel along with everybody else, in the interests of fairness and winning the war we need flight rationing; not elitist space tourism – and we need it now.
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