Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Leonardo DiCaprio and Richard Branson - Boldly Going Where No Greens Have Gone Before

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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: Over the years, he has consistently advocated for a broad mix of clean energy sources, including nuclear. He is founder and chief benefactor of the Carbon War Room, an outfit that has long advocated for carbon pricing and energy efficiency measures to help alleviate global warming. Mr. DiCaprio is on the board of trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council and has decried overconsumption. "We are the number one leading consumers, the biggest producers of waste around the world," the actor said in 2008.

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. 

When you include the energy of the entire Virgin Galactic operation, which includes support aircraft, it is seven times more than the flight from Singapore to London. As such, a single trip on Virgin Galactic will require twice as much energy as the average American consumes each year. (These numbers were confirmed by a representative for Virgin Galactic.)

The Virgin Galactic story is familiar: Environmental celebrities and other elites often have a very hard time walking their talk. The bigger story is what Virgin Galactic tells us about the likely trajectory of future energy consumption.

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