Bezos, Branson, and Musk: Billionaire Space Polluters

July 23rd, 2021 - by Dr. Stuart Parkinson / Scientists for Global Responsibility & Mike Wall /

Space Tourism: ‘Environmental Vandalism for the Super-Rich’
What Are the Climate Impacts?

Dr. Stuart Parkinson / Scientists for Global Responsibility

“The most profound piece of it, for me, was looking out at the Earth, and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere,” when you get up above it, what you see is it’s actually incredibly thin. It’s this tiny little fragile thing, and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it.” — Jeff Bezos

 (July 20, 2021) — The past few weeks have seen some frightening impacts of climate change — from record-breaking temperatures and major wildfires in western Canada and the USA to unprecedented floods in Germany and Belgium. The hottest temperature reliably recorded on the Earth’s surface — 54.4C — was logged in Death Valley in California on 9 July. [1] Scientists said the heat-wave in Canada and the USA at the end of June was “virtually impossible” without human-induced climate change. [2] 

One thing that is especially striking is that these events are now happening in some of the wealthiest and weather-resilient nations of the world — but even that didn’t stop major death tolls.

The huge threat of global climate disruption is leading to ever more urgent calls for society to rapidly reduce its carbon emissions. It is also clear that technological change alone will not be enough to tackle the problem. A recent report by the Climate Change Committee — the UK government’s main advisory body on the issue — found that 62% of the necessary measures involve societal and behaviour change. [3] 

Avoiding air travel is one of the most effective changes individuals can make to cut this pollution. For example, the carbon footprint of a return flight from London to Hong Kong — seated in economy-class — is about 3.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e) [4] — similar to a UK citizen’s average car use for over 10 months. [5] 

Research by the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies indicates that a globally-sustainable lifestyle carbon footprint in 2020 was 3.9 tCO2e [6] — which gives a clear indication of just how much our society needs to reduce its impacts now (and this figure falls rapidly to 2.5t CO2e by 2030 and then much lower still for 2040 and 2050).

Against this backdrop, we have billionaires travelling in the inaugural flights of their space tourism corporations. On 11 July, Richard Branson flew in Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo craft, while on 20 July, Jeff Bezos travelled in Blue Origin’s New Shepard. These activities take the climate impacts of flying to considerably more damaging level.

Let’s look at the New Shepard spacecraft. Prof Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University — a leading expert in carbon footprint analysis — has estimated that a single flight results in emissions of at least 330 tCO2e. [7] With four passengers, this means each one is responsible for over 82 tCO2e — over 20 times the sustainable level for a whole year! And note, this is a conservative estimate. It does not include the additional heating effects of emissions at high altitude, the carbon footprint of developing and manufacturing the spacecraft, or the emissions of running the Blue Origin corporation.

Furthermore, the fuel combination used by the latest generation of New Shepard craft now includes liquid hydrogen [8] — a higher carbon fuel than those used in Prof. Berners-Lee’s calculations.

What about SpaceShipTwo? Although this craft emits markedly less direct carbon emissions per flight than New Shepard, as SGR discussed back in 2016, [9] it uses a fuel combination that emits significant levels of black carbon into the upper atmosphere. Research by the University of Colorado indicates that this can damage the stratospheric ozone layer — not only leading to higher levels of damaging ultra-violet radiation reaching the Earth’s surface, but also causing a global heating effect likely to be considerably greater than that from the carbon emissions alone.

And the aim of these journeys? A few minutes of ‘zero-gravity’ experience and a nice view. It is hard to see this as anything more than environmental vandalism for the super-rich.

Virgin Galactic claims to want to launch a “new age of clean and sustainable access to space” [10] — but they and the others in the space tourism industry clearly fail to understand the level of their own climate impacts, the rapidly increasing severity of the climate emergency, or the scale of action needed to cut carbon emissions to a sustainable level.

If governments are serious about trying to prevent ‘dangerous’ climate change, then there is an important step to take immediately: ban space tourism. 

Dr. Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility. He has written on climate science and policy for 30 years, and holds a PhD in climate science. 


[1] Yale Climate Connections (2021). Death Valley, California, breaks the all-time world heat record for the second year in a row. 12 July.

[2] BBC News online (2021). Climate change: US-Canada heatwave ‘virtually impossible’ without warming. 8 July.

[3] Committee on Climate Change (2019). Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming.

[4] P.140-142 of: Berners-Lee M (2020). How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything. Profile Books.

[5]  P.62-63 of: Berners-Lee (2020) — see note 4.

[6] IGES (2019). 1.5-Degree Lifestyles: Targets and options for reducing lifestyle carbon footprints.

[7] P.150-152 of: Berners-Lee (2020) — see note 4.

[8] Wikipedia (2021). New Shepard.

[9] Chapman P (2016). Flights from sense: how space tourism could alter the climate. SGR Newsletter, no.44. February.

[10] The Guardian (2021). Richard Branson’s quest: to boldly go where no billionaire has gone before. 10 July.

 [image credit: ThePenultimateOne, CC BY-SA 4.0, ]

Alas for Planet Earth, Jeff Bezos Is a Space Case

Jeff Bezos Says His Launch to Space
Gave Him Greater Appreciation of Earth’s Fragility

Mike Wall /

LAUNCH SITE ONE, West Texas — Seeing Earth from space apparently made a big impact on the planet’s richest resident.

Billionaire Jeff Bezos flew to suborbital space with three other people Tuesday (July 20) on the first crewed mission ever launched by his spaceflight company, Blue Origin. He said he greatly enjoyed the rocket ride and microgravity flips but was most struck, as astronauts tend to be, by the thought-provoking view.

“The most profound piece of it, for me, was looking out at the Earth, and looking at the Earth’s atmosphere,” he said during a post-flight news conference Tuesday. 

That life-giving shell of air seems sizable from the ground. “But when you get up above it, what you see is it’s actually incredibly thin. It’s this tiny little fragile thing, and as we move about the planet, we’re damaging it,” Bezos said, referring to greenhouse-gas pollution. “It’s one thing to recognize that intellectually. It’s another thing to actually see with your own eyes how fragile it really is.”

Bezos has taken some steps to help protect that fragile shell and the rest of our beleaguered planet. Last year, for example, he announced the creation of the Bezos Earth Fund, which is dedicated to fighting climate change and boosting sustainability, and pledged $10 billion to get it up and running. And he now aims to start devoting more of his time to that project — time that was recently freed up after he stepped down as CEO of Amazon.

“I’m going to split my time between Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund,” Bezos said during today’s news conference. “And there’s going to be a third thing, and maybe a fourth thing, but I don’t know what those are yet. I’m not very good at doing [only] one thing.”

And Blue Origin’s long-term goals have a strong environmental component, Bezos has stressed. Over the long haul, the company wants to help establish a bustling off-Earth economy, with millions of people living and working in space. Indeed, Blue Origin intends to help move most resource extraction and heavy industry off the planet, so that we don’t further strip the planet and foul its soil, air and waters.

Turning such bold dreams into reality starts with relatively small steps, Bezos said — like today’s first-ever crewed launch of New Shepard, the company’s suborbital space tourism vehicle.

“We’re going to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future. And we need to do that. We need to do that to solve the problems here on Earth. It’s not about escaping,” Bezos said.

“This is the only good planet in the solar system,” he said. “We’ve sent robotic probes to all of them. This is the only good one, I promise you. So we have to take care of it. And when you go into space and see how fragile it is, you want to take care of it even more. And that’s what this is about.”

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.