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Luxury pollution and the rigging of COP26

No wonder there’s so much anger on the sidelines in Glasgow

Economic CrisisEnvironment

Jeff Bezos, founder of sub-orbital spaceflight services company Blue Origin, inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage. Photo courtesy Blue Origin.

What’s being called “luxury pollution” by the mega-rich is having quite a moment in the media during the second week of COP26. That may be because space cowboy Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, addressed the representatives in Glasgow on November 2, where he shared his insights into the fragility of planet Earth and stated, “We must all stand together to protect our world.”

According to Bernie Sanders, Jeff Bezos “makes some $2,537 every second,” as his “morally obscene” amount of wealth grew during the pandemic by at least $80 billion.

While Bezos’s understanding of the planet may be as new to him as his cowboy hat, he seems to have not understood that his space flight a few months ago in July helped to imperil the Earth. He told the COP26 representatives that the flight made him realize how fragile the planet is, but he didn’t seem to connect the dots between climate change and his own actions.

Indeed, Bezos is hoping that the United States Congress will award his space company Blue Origin with $10 billion in additional funding.

In a study published in October, French economist Lucas Chancel estimated that “an 11-minute [space] flight emits no fewer than 75 tonnes of carbon per passenger once indirect emissions are taken into account (and more likely, in the 250 -1,000 tonnes range).”

That amount of 75 tonnes far exceeds the lifetime carbon pollution from any one of the poorest billion people on the planet. Chancel noted that of the poorest one billion people, each is responsible for “less than one tonne” [of greenhouse emissions] per year. So when Bezos says we must “all stand together” to protect the planet, he seems to be suggesting that the poorest people on the planet have as much responsibility as the richest.

Of course Bezos is not the only billionaire space cowboy. Sir Richard Branson went to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic Rocket, Elon Musk is promising to take tourists to Mars, Canadian billionaire Mark Pathy will join two other (unnamed) billionaires in Axiom Space company’s space flight next January, and billionaire John Shoffner has bought a space trip to the International Space Station late next year.

Bezos, Branson, Musk and other space-cowboys are hoping that the US Federal Aviation Administration will “streamline” regulations so that they can avoid any new emissions standards on commercial space-flights.

But billionaire space tourism is only the more glaring aspect of “luxury pollution.” And it’s not just the billionaires (the 0.0001 percent) who are responsible for luxury pollution.

The one percent

A recent report written by Tim Gore of the Institute of European Environmental Policy, with input from the Stockholm Environment Institute, states that by 2030, the richest one percent are expected to generate almost double the total emissions of the poorest 50 percent. The “carbon footprints of the rich and famous” include mansions, vehicles, private jets, space-tourism, and super-yachts that emit 7,000 tonnes of carbon per year.

The carbon footprints of the mega-rich also include emissions associated with their capital investments, considered “a large and growing share of the total”.

After the release of the report, Oxfam’s climate policy spokesperson Nafkote Dabi issued a statement that said: “A tiny elite appear to have a free pass to pollute. Their oversized emissions are fueling extreme weather around the world and jeopardizing the international goal of limiting global heating.”

Tim Gore, author of the report, told The Guardian:

To close the emissions gap by 2030, it is necessary for governments to target measures at their richest, highest emitters—the climate and inequality crises should be tackled together. That includes both measures to constrain luxury carbon consumption like megayachts, private jets and space travel, and to curb climate-intensive investments like stock-holdings in fossil fuel industries.

Origin of ‘carbon footprint’

Ironically enough, the concept of a “carbon footprint” was created and embraced by the fossil fuel industry to shift attention from the systemic climate pollution of the industry, to the pollution by the world’s individuals.

According to an article by Mark Kaufman, in the early years of the 2000s, fossil giant British Petroleum (BP) hired public-relations company Olgivy and Mather “to promote the slant that climate change is not the fault of an oil giant, but that of individuals.” The PR company came up with the term “carbon footprint” and by 2004 BP had unveiled its “carbon footprint calculator” so that everyone could determine how much their normal daily activities are contributing to heating the planet.

A few years later, MIT researchers used BP’s calculator to assess the carbon emissions of a “homeless person [in the US] who ate in soup kitchens and slept in a homeless shelter”. That destitute individual would nonetheless still indirectly emit about “8.5 tons of greenhouse gas emissions each year,” primarily by being a member of a fossil-addicted nation.

Of course, BP could no longer deny its role in pollution after the disastrous 2010 explosion of its oil-drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. But the term carbon footprint persists.

As George Monbiot recently wrote for The Guardian:

Preventing more than 1.5C of global heating means that our average emissions should be no greater than two tones of carbon dioxide per person per year. But the richest 1% of the world’s people produce an average of more than 70 tonnes. Bill Gates, according to one estimate, emits almost 7,500 tonnes of C02, mostly from flying in his private jets. Roman Abramovich, the same figures suggest, produces almost 34,000 tonnes, largely by running his gigantic yacht.

Monbiot further explained:

The multiple homes that ultra-rich people own might be fitted with solar panels, their supercars might be electric, their private planes might run on biokerosene, but these tweaks make little difference to the overall impact of their consumption. In some cases, they increase it. The switch to biofuels favoured by Bill Gates is now among the greatest causes of habitat destruction, as forests are felled to produce wood pellets and liquid fuels, and soils are trashed to make biomethane.

A horrible paradox

Of course, it’s not just the ultra-rich who are investing in solar panels, electric vehicles, wind turbines, and other “green” technologies. The middle-class across the planet is being encouraged to do so during the coming decade.

But that has raised a horrible paradox.

A shocking November 2021 article in Der Spiegel entitled “Mining the Planet to Death: The Dirty Truth About Clean Technologies” has illuminated that paradox.

The authors write:

There are great hopes that the green technology can be used to help save the climate, but that rescue also entails stripping the planet of precious resources. And this is the paradox behind what is currently the most important project of the industrialized world: the global energy transition…Deposits [of minerals] in the poor South are being exploited so that the rich North can transition to environmental sustainability. At least to a lifestyle that appears sustainable.

As one of several vivid examples, the authors reveal that a single offshore wind turbine uses 67 tons of copper. To extract that amount of copper, “miners have to move about 50,000 tons of earth and rock, around five times the weight of the Eiffel Tower. The ore is shredded, ground, watered and leached. The bottom line: a lot of nature is destroyed for a little bit of power.”

Most of that mining is conducted in the Global South. The authors state: “Wind turbines, photovoltaic systems, electric cars, lithium-ion batteries, high-voltage power lines and fuel cells all have one thing in common: inconceivable amounts of raw materials are consumed in their production.”

MiningWatch Canada is estimating that “3 billion tons of mined metals and minerals will be needed to power the energy transition,” an increase in mining that it calls “massive,” with an emphasis on six critical minerals: lithium, graphite, copper, cobalt, nickel, and rare earth minerals.

Stating that “We can’t mine our way out of the climate crisis,” MiningWatch Canada has joined other grassroots and civil society organizations around the world demanding that leaders at COP26 take meaningful action to “reduce overconsumption in wealthy countries” and “shift away from disposable consumption and private transportation”.

Loans for the Global South

Furthering the horrible paradox, George Monbiot has revealed that Global North financing of Global South climate adaptation measures is a “farce.” At the Paris Climate Summit of 2015, developed nations had pledged to provide $100 billion per year by 2020 to help developing nations adapt to climate change.

Monbiot recently wrote, “Most of the money the rich nations claim to be providing takes the form of loans… Highly indebted nations are being encouraged to accumulate more debt to finance their adaptation to the disasters we [in the North] have caused. It is staggeringly, outrageously unfair.”

Adding to the outrage about climate finance, US climate envoy John Kerry recently told Yahoo News: “My office worked with the six largest banks in America—Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, State Street, Bank of America, and JP Morgan—they publicly stood up a number of months ago, it wasn’t much noticed, and they announced that they will, over the next 10 years, they will invest $4.1 trillion” in developing nations.

As one writer noted, the big bucks “will be coming as loans and investments (as against grants). Wall Street is moving in.”

These are just a few examples of the ways in which COP26 is rigged in favour of the Global North and the elite. No wonder there’s so much anger on the sidelines in Glasgow.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached through her personal website.


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