Boldly Going Where No Greens Have Gone Before

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by Max Luke and Jenna Mukuno,

from The Wall Street Journal,

Why do Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson lecture us about carbon consumption while plotting trips to space?

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo over Mojave, Calif., on its first rocket-powered test flight, April 29, 2013. Associated Press

If all goes according to plan, Hollywood icon Leonardo DiCaprio will blast into space aboard the maiden voyage of Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship sometime this year, opening up a new era of civilian space travel. This development might only be remarkable as the fulfillment of a dream long predicted by futurists and technophiles, were it not for the fact that Messrs. Branson and DiCaprio are prominent environmentalist celebrities who have warned of a coming ecological catastrophe if we fail to address our carbon problem.

Mr. Branson’s commitment to fighting climate change is praiseworthy …

Private space travel doesn’t seem to mesh with living green, and Mr. Branson surely anticipated that his project would raise environmentalists’ eyebrows. Perhaps that’s why he announced this past May: “We have reduced the [carbon emission] cost of somebody going into space from something like two weeks of New York’s electricity supply to less than the cost of an economy round-trip from Singapore to London.”

That would be a remarkable achievement in energy efficiency if it were true. Alas, it is not. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental assessment of the launch and re-entry of Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, one launch-land cycle emits about 30 tons of carbon dioxide, or about five tons per passenger. That is about five times the carbon footprint of a flight from Singapore to London. … a single trip on Virgin Galactic will require twice as much energy as the average American consumes each year.

The Virgin Galactic story is familiar: Environmental celebrities and other elites often have a very hard time walking their talk.

That Mr. Branson has developed a spacecraft that blasts humans into space more efficiently than previous vehicles is a laudable technical accomplishment. But from an environmental perspective, that accomplishment is completely overshadowed by the reality that the mogul is pioneering a new industry that involves blasting tourists into space. Should he succeed, the relative efficiency of the endeavor is almost entirely beside the point. Mr. Branson will have invented a new way for wealthy elites like Mr. DiCaprio to consume vast quantities of energy.

Weekend trips to Mars for the masses are, of course, still the stuff of science fiction. So, too, is the fantasy that climate change might be averted through deep cuts in global energy consumption.

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