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Jeff Bezos calls for moving ‘all polluting industry into space’ after private rocket trip

The Independent logo The Independent 20/07/2021 Louise Boyle
a couple of people that are standing in the sand: TIDEFRONT Bezos space.jpg © EPA/BLUE ORIGIN TIDEFRONT Bezos space.jpg

Jeff Bezos has said the experience of shooting himself into space brought a newfound appreciation for tackling the burgeoning climate crisis here on Earth, and suggested sending “all polluting industry” into orbit following his rocket trip.

The world’s richest man and three civilian guests took a suborbital joyride on Tuesday aboard New Shephard, the rocket created by his company Blue Origin.

Post-flight, the Amazon founder told NBC that there were “no words” to describe the experience. His flight comes nine days after fellow billionaire, Sir Richard Branson, entered orbit.

Both men, along with billionaire Elon Musk, have been criticised for the so-called “race” into private space tourism, seen as symbolic of vast wealth inequality and a misguided obsession of the ultra-rich while the climate crisis wreaks havocs on the planet below.

Climate activists, 350.org, wrote on Monday: “Billionaire Jeff Bezos is blasting into space tomorrow. Hundreds of people have been killed by severe flooding this week in India, Germany and Uganda. The money and technology exist to halt the worst of the climate crisis. It’s time for people power.”

And former US labor secretary Robert Reich tweeted: “Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?”

Mr Bezos defended against criticism by saying that the 10-minute trip had fortified his intent to fight the climate crisis and keep Earth as “this beautiful gem of a planet”.

“We live on this beautiful planet. You can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space,” he said.

“We live in it, and it looks so big. It feels like this atmosphere is huge and we can disregard it and treat it poorly. When you get up there and you see it, you see how tiny it is and how fragile it is.”

The billionaire appeared to have been enraptured by what astronauts call the “overview effect” – the psychological impact that comes from the rare experience of looking down at the whole Earth above and realizing its fragility in the vast darkness of space.

Mr Bezos then continued: “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. And keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is. That’s going to take decades to achieve, but you have to start. And big things start with small steps.”

There does not currently appear to be pathways to shift, for example, the oil industry, or manufacturing and petrochemical plants, into space this century, as some climate activists and scientists swiftly pointed out.


Video: Jeff Bezos launches to space aboard own rocket (Associated Press)

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“I mean, I’m all for sending Exxon to a distant asteroid, but, uh, wouldn’t just switching to clean energy be easier?” Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media, tweeted.

Mr Bezos said that his space flight was a step along the way to more space travel for future generations and that at some point, reusable rockets would reduce waste.

“We have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build a future,” he said.

The amount of carbon emissions created by the billionaires’ space flights remain hazy.

Blue Origin has publicly boasted that its rocket is greener than Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity. This is because New Shepard uses a liquid hydrogen and oxygen rocket engine, which Blue Origin claims has a smaller climate impact than traditional methods.

However, the burning of the fuels used by New Shepard still causes greenhouse gases to be released. The Independent last week asked a Blue Origin spokesperson to provide information on the emissions caused by a flight on New Shepard.

A spokesperson for Sir Richard’s space outfit, Virgin Galactic, has suggested that the carbon footprint of flying in its vessel, Unity, is the “equivalent to a business flight from London to New York”. However, the company refused to reveal the emissions caused by a space flight when asked by The Independent.

(A person travelling on an economy return ticket between London and New York causes the release of around 1.5 tonnes of CO2, according to Flightemissions.org, roughly the same as created by the average person in Morocco over the course of a year. Emissions from a business class journey can be more than twice that amount.)

Though the emissions caused by one trip on VSS Unity or New Shepard are unlikely to be large enough to threaten climate targets, Sir Richard’s mission to “make space accessible for all” could come at a higher cost. Around 600 individuals have reportedly paid deposits on tickets to travel on VSS Unity, which cost up to £180,000 ($250,000). Blue Origin hasn’t revealed its price for a ride to space.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” Professor Paul Peeters, a researcher of sustainable tourism and transport at Breda University of Applied Sciences in the Netherlands, previously told The Independent.

“We are really struggling to cope with climate change, both in terms of solving the problem and in terms of adaptation – you can see that with the wildfires burning entire villages [in Canada]. So to cause more climate change just for a few minutes of fun, I find that a bit difficult.”

Earl Blumenauer, a Democratic US representative from Oregon, said on Tuesday that he intends to introduce legislation to tax commercial space flights that aren’t primarily for scientific advancement.

“Space exploration isn’t a tax-free holiday for the wealthy,” Rep Blumenauer said. “Just as normal Americans pay taxes when they buy airline tickets, billionaires who fly into space to produce nothing of scientific value should do the same, and then some.”

Mr Bezos stepped down this month as Amazon’s CEO and said he plans to focus on Blue Origin and the Bezos Earth Fund – a $10 billion effort to fight the climate crisis – in the years ahead.

Mr Bezos offered up thanks on Tuesday including to “every Amazon employee, and every Amazon customer. Because you guys paid for all this”.

He said that he has financed the rocket company by selling $1 billion in Amazon stock each year.

Amazon reported that its carbon footprint had jumped 15 per cent in 2019, from the previous year, to 51.17 million metric tons of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of 13 coal burning power plants running for a year.

Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded: “Yes, Amazon workers did pay for this - with lower wages, union busting, a frenzied and inhumane workplace, and delivery drivers not having health insurance during a pandemic. And Amazon customers are paying for it with Amazon abusing their market power to hurt small business.”

Additional reporting from Associated Press

This article has been updated on the emissions caused by flights

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