Thursday, November 4th, 2021
Hypocrites on the Climate Front?
Why private jets are not the (real) problem
A comment by Kai Stoppel
Whether Jeff Bezos or Ursula von der Leyen: During the climate summit in Glasgow, of all places, alleged private jet scandals of the rich and powerful come into focus. But the outrage about it harbors dangers.
A suspected scandal shook the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow: In order to curb global warming, corporate executives, royals and other decision-makers traveled to Glasgow in an armada of 400 private jets, reported the “Daily Mail”. Among them were Amazon boss Jeff Bezos and Prince Albert of Monaco. More than 13,000 tons of CO2 were blown into the air for this, the paper calculates – as much as almost 1200 German citizens emit each year. “Hypocrite airways?” headlines the newspaper questioningly. That means that the celebrities flew with the airline “Hypocrites”.
The CO2 emissions of the elite are indeed staggering. Especially when it comes to flying. Bill Gates put down one loud one study back around 343,500 kilometers in the plane in 2017 – it could also have flown more than eight times around the earth. With that alone he blew 1,600 tons of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. However, if the private jets of the rich and powerful get the focus of climate efforts, that would be a very narrow view of the real problem. And this harbors several dangers.
First: The criticism of the use of jets promotes the idea that there are clearly definable CO2 problem areas like removing unsightly stones from a mosaic without changing the overall picture. In addition to air traffic, the big bad guys include coal-fired power stations, cars with internal combustion engines and beef consumption. But they only make up part of the greenhouse gas problem – most of the rest often escapes into the atmosphere unnoticed by the public. To limit global warming, it will not be enough to skip a few flights.
It is difficult to separate good and bad
Within this huge system of many hidden emissions, it is also often difficult to clearly distinguish between climate-damaging and climate-friendly elements. An example: while airplanes are decried as a climate sin, the railroad is seen as a climate saver. But according to one investigation Something is suppressed in the case of trains: unlike the aircraft, they require rails, bridges and tunnels. Concrete and steel are used for the construction; CO2 is generated during their manufacture. Then there are the construction machines and the transport of the workers to the construction sites: further CO2 sources. That doesn’t make traveling by train any more harmful to the climate than flying – but it shows how difficult it is to separate good and bad from one another.
Second: A look at the elites threatens to blame the problem on one group in particular. Of course, billionaires emit an inexpressibly higher amount of emissions than normal mortals. As a rule, the richer, the greater the so-called CO2 footprint. But “rich” is relative. According to one report From Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute, the richest 10 percent of the world’s population were responsible for around half of global emissions in 2015. These are not just multi-billionaires like Gates and Bezos: According to Oxfam, an annual income of around 33,000 euros is enough to belong to the top tenth of the world – more than half of all full-time employees in Germany fall into this category.
But shouldn’t the rich and powerful serve as role models? This argument also emerged after EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s 19-minute private jet flight. Apart from the fact that not using private jets as a “good example” in the ears of those who can only afford a ticket in economy class should sound like a mockery – if the rich and powerful want to be real role models, they would have to be their own Annual CO2 emissions 0.7 tons to reduce. It has to be that low in 2050 so that the 1.5 degree target can still be achieved. For comparison: a German citizen currently causes 11.17 tons of CO2 per year.
0.7 tons of CO2 per year – a per capita level that the poorest countries in the world already have today shunting. Even a mere mortal in the West would have great difficulties in achieving this, for the super-rich, corporate bosses and top politicians that should be even more difficult. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t. There is no escape from our CO2 world until something fundamentally changes.
Lone fighters have a hard time
Third: Pointing the finger at the rich threatens to overestimate the possibilities of the individual. The concept of the individual CO2 footprint gives the impression that one’s own (purchase) decision is the decisive factor in the fight against climate change. But as long as the entire system is based on the massive emission of CO2, will denouncing individual emission sins remain pure eyewash.
Rather, the system has to change from the ground up so that individual decisions can also make a difference. For example, technologies should be promoted that produce climate-friendly and at the same time affordable alternatives to today’s cars, airplanes and meat consumption. Politicians must create the framework for this, and citizens must give them the mandate to do so at ballot boxes. With their wallet, everyone could then opt for truly climate-neutral services and products. And maybe in the future Bezos and Co. will fly around the world with a clear conscience, CO2-free – whatever that may look like.
When looking at the COP 26 in Glasgow, it should therefore not be about the private jets of the influential, but about whether they are setting the decisive course to advance the system conversion. Little would be gained if everyone came by sailing boat and then left the summit without a breakthrough. Speaking of sailing boats: This is exactly what climate activist Greta Thunberg wanted to use to travel to the 2019 climate summit in New York in a CO2-saving manner. In the end, it turned out that additional air travel was necessary to organize the trip. History makes it clear: A right life in the wrong one is difficult, even when it comes to climate protection.