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Climate action not space tourism

July 20, 2021

The actions of millions of people and policies of innumerable governments to protect the climate are being negated by selfish millionaires shooting themselves into space. Sonya Diehn has a proposal for Branson and Bezos.

Blue Origin space capsule floating above Earth
Jeff Bezos says Blue Origin is supposed to help the planet. Really?Image: picture alliance/dpa/Blue Origin/AP

I care about the future; therefore, I care about the climate. I belong to the vast majority of global citizens who, as poll after poll shows, are concerned about the direction the planet is heading and understand the urgency and existential nature of the impending climate emergency. The recent catastrophic flooding in central Europe and extreme high temperatures in North America are just a few symptoms of this.

So in my family, we do something about it. We scrimp and save on our carbon budget: we walk or ride bikes instead of driving our car; we eat dramatically less meat than the average family in industrialized countries; we skip that trans-Atlantic trip even if we really want it; we make sure we're not wasting food and we also compost our scraps. 

And then some filthy rich dude blasts into space, just for fun

That's incredibly selfish, isn't it?

And it really devaluates our efforts to protect the climate — both morally and materially. 

Tiny trip, enormous emissions

DW senior editor Sonya Diehn
Sonya Diehn has a proposal for Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson

People's motivation to take action on climate change declines when they see others doing whatever they want, without heed for the consequences. Beyond this demoralization, there is then the actual carbon footprint of space tourism.

Look, I'm not against space travel in principle. I'm actually a bit of a science-fiction nerd myself, and get very excited about the possibilities of exploring space. And granted, all tourism — even on Earth — creates carbon emissions. My intention is not to say tourism shouldn't exist. But the problem with space tourism is the proportion.

Let's take Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space flight on July 11. For a suborbital journey of about 100 miles (160 kilometers), the company said the carbon dioxide emissions released were roughly equal to a round-trip trans-Atlantic passenger jet flight. Based on publicly available information, a trip from London to New York City releases about 1.24 metric tons of CO2. To put it another way, that 1 1/2-hour jaunt into space was equivalent to about 3,000 miles (4,800 kilometers) of driving an average passenger car.

Virgin Galactic space plane blasting upwards
Not only CO2, but also soot and ozone-depleting substances are released by Virgin Galactic's space planeImage: picture-alliance/dpa

If Virgin Galactic is adding 3,000 road miles of CO2 emissions to our atmosphere for a single short trip for a mere six people, that devalues efforts — both personal and policy — to protect the climate. The problem could become particularly acute as space tourism ramps up, as it seems could soon be the case: More than 600 people have already made a reservation for a Virgin Galactic space flight, which has a price tag of between $200,000 and $250,000 (€169,000 to €212,000).

Branson's Virgin Galactic reportedly focuses on environmental sustainability, although what that entails has not been made clear. I find this to be a very dubious claim, particularly in light of the carbon footprint of such flights. 

At least billionaire Jeff Bezos gives the environment more than just lip service, by having rockets for his space travel company Blue Origin use hydrogen fuel, which does not produce carbon emissions. But let's please not ignore the fact that hydrogen fuel, though it can be produced using renewable energy, is currently typically produced by — you guessed it — burning fossil fuels.

How sustainable is hydrogen production?

A proposal for the space cowboys

It's ironic: the sight of planet Earth from orbit — a gem of life amid the black void of space — is often credited with inspiring the modern environmental movement. And now, Blue Origin says its vision is to benefit Earth. This was most certainly the motivation behind selling off one ticket on its current flight to an ultra-rich mystery bidder — at $28 million (that person has since postponed their participation to a future trip). That's beyond ironic — I'd call it … cynical.

Planet Earth as seen from space
So beautiful, yet so fragile: The one and only planet EarthImage: Imago/Zumapress/NASA

If space tourism companies really want to make good on their green claims, I propose the following: For every flight taken by tourists into space, let's see those companies invest an equal sum into climate protection. That way, those egoists can still get their kicks, and we can also try to heal the climate. 

Space tourism should only be possible if conducted against a mega-offset: one that guarantees a future on this sparkling blue and green and brown gem. After all, it's the source of our lives — and the only planet that can sustain us.