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The carbon footprint of space tourism

For those who are interested in the carbon footprint of space tourism, I want to write a brief post. Really, we shouldn’t have to think too hard about this – it’s obviously messed up. What made me angry enough to drop my other plans and write this post is that the top hit on Google (a supposedly fact-checking site, “Politifact”) implies that Bezos’s Blue Origin flight didn’t emit carbon because it was fueled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen.

Technically, the hydrogen didn’t directly release CO2 when it was burned but obviously the rocket fuel required energy to make! Hydrogen is normally made from natural gas and the purification and compression of oxygen also takes energy. If we could really send Jeff Bezos away from planet earth without expending energy, that would indeed be exciting news!

You can read a more sensible (and accurate) discussion on the impact of space tourism in this Ted article by Eloise Marais. Dr. Marais runs a climate-focused research group at University College London, which includes research focused on the impact of rocket launches on the atmosphere and global climate.  

The wider impact of space tourism

Apart from the obvious news that rocket fuel costs energy (even if it’s hydrogen) there are many other impacts of rocket launches that aren’t fully understood.

The very high temperatures during launch and re-entry (which is when the protective heat shields of the returning crafts burn up) also convert stable nitrogen in the air into reactive nitrogen oxides. These gases and particles have many negative effects on the atmosphere.

In the stratosphere, nitrogen oxides and chemicals formed from the breakdown of water vapor convert ozone into oxygen and deplete the ozone layer which guards life on Earth against harmful UV radiation. – Dr. Marais.

So, the impact of space tourism goes beyond the estimated carbon footprint of 200-300 tonnes of CO2 to launch a rocket containing four space tourists. Even adding on the ozone-depleting nitrogen oxides and the massive amount of hardware (material waste, electronics, conflict minerals, etc.) that’s involved doesn’t tell the whole story. The wider impact is that it distracts an awful lot of people from solving real global problems.

It consumes the time of scientists who could be researching more pressing issues if space tourism wasn’t a thing. Dr. Marais and her research group (and many others like it) are doing a necessary service by researching the impact of space tourism. But their time could be better spent on researching other climate change issues if space tourism hadn’t reared its ugly rocket-shaped head.

You’d have thought we’d have learned our lesson from things like CFCs, which scientists had to spend decades researching before they were banned. Instead, we continue to allow industries to introduce dodgy new technologies or ingredients (e.g., microbeads) with the burden of proof (of damage) resting on publicly-funded scientists.

The carbon footprint of a space flight – in context

If we consider the carbon footprint of space tourism to be just the cost of the rocket fuel, and not the other impacts mentioned above, we can estimate it roughly at 100 tonnes of CO2 per person. (That will obviously be much higher for the folk who have paid Elon Musk’s SpaceX $55 million to stay at the International Space Station.) So, for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic tourists, the carbon footprint of their 10 minute flight is roughly equivalent to a 25-year carbon footprint for the average person.

Globally, the average carbon footprint is around 4 tonnes of CO2. To have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop under 2 tonnes by 2050. – The Nature Conservancy

So, we should be aiming for a carbon footprint of 2 tonnes of CO2 per year. Space tourists will blow through 50 times that amount in a few minutes. And again, that’s not counting the other impacts on the atmosphere (yet to be fully understood) or the material footprint.

So, besides the space tourists, how is the rest of the US population doing in terms of reaching an annual carbon footprint of around 2 tonnes of CO2?

The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tonnes per year, one of the highest rates in the world. So this needs to be reduced by almost 90%. Californians are doing a bit better than the average US resident but still need to reduce their carbon footprint to one-fifth of current levels.

Per capita GHG emissions in California have dropped from a 2001 peak of 14.1 tonnes per person to 10.7 tonnes per person in 2017, a 24 percent decrease. – California Air Research Board.

The cost of space tourism

The price tag for a flight on Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic is not certain but the most common estimate is around $250,000. The estimated cost of saving a human life (by donating to effective charities such as the Against Malaria Foundation) is around $2300. I know it might seem gauche to compare the two (because rich people waste their money on all kinds of crap, after all) but I’m going to do it anyway. The money spent on a couple of minutes above the clouds could be used to save the lives of around 100 children.

I can’t really think of a more selfish or egotistical thing than to take a touristic flight into space but I guess that sounds very judgmental. Yes, it might feel amazing to see the earth from afar, but isn’t that a little bit marred by knowing that the trip costs:

It’s hard not to think of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The sad thing is that whenever I take a regular flight I notice how few people even bother to look out the window.

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