Offsetting CO2 from flights: A Taylor Swift, Valve Company Holiday, & Richard Garriott Space Flight Special
An interesting little bit of news this week is a report from Yard that calculated the CO2 equivalent emissions from a bunch of celebrities' private jets. Taylor Swift comes in at number one:
Yard's research found that Miss Swift is the biggest celebrity CO2e polluter of this year so far. Racking up a total of 170 flights since January, Taylor's jet has amassed a vast 22,923 minutes in the air – 15.9 days. Quite a large amount considering that she is not currently touring.
Taylor's jet has an average flight time of just 80 minutes and an average of 139.36 miles per flight. Her total flight emissions for the year come in at 8,293.54 tonnes, or 1,184.8 times more than the average person's total annual emissions. Taylor’s shortest recorded flight of 2022 was just 36 minutes, flying from Missouri to Nashville.
What can Ms Swift do to reduce this footprint? Let’s break it down and see if there’s any lessons for general air travel in the process.
The first step is, as always, preventing emissions in the first place. Preventing jet emissions is actually quite easy – just don’t fly! Especially don’t fly in a private jet. If you absolutely must fly, then try and travel with as many other people as possible. This way more people share in the benefits (travel to somewhere they want to go) and spread around the downside (emissions). Of course, this in no way reduces the total emission, it just means more people get something for them – a small but important distinction.
There are also ways to reduce emissions after the fact. The two main ways are offsets, and carbon capture projects. Neither is perfect, or preferable to preventing CO2 being emitted in the first place, but they’re better than nothing.
Offsets work by paying for someone else to reduce their real emissions. For example, the power company Powershop bought offsets to cover the emissions of its customers from a Thai coal-fired power station, who used the money to install efficiency upgrades that reduced emissions by a (very large!) concrete amount. This is kind of neat, because the power station was probably not going to be able to afford these improvements otherwise, so real emissions reductions have actually been achieved. On the other hand, many people who are being covered by these offsets are almost certainly unaware their offsets come from literally paying a coal power station. The vibes, as they say, are a bit off. This sort of laundering can happen through any kind of market, but its especially bad in emissions trading.
Likewise, offset credits are notoriously unreliable. The previous Australian Liberal (conservative) government for most of the past decade operated an offsets program that produced so-called ‘carbon credits’ which in all probability represented no real emissions. So offsets are dangerous, because they can be a good way to finance real emissions, or to finance absolute garbage and total scams. According to Compensate, a highly regarded offsetting/carbon credit organisation:
Not all projects on the voluntary carbon market guarantee real climate impact. Compensate has evaluated over 170 nature based projects in the past couple of years using our scientific evaluation criteria… unfortunately 9/10 projects fail to pass our evaluation process. That says something about how high we set the bar, but maybe something also about the general quality of carbon credits available on the voluntary carbon market.
So your mileage will well and truly vary. It’s also not the sort of thing that the average joe can just verify for themselves either. I’m sure not confident in doing it!
Carbon capture projects are a little bit different from offsets, in that they aim to actually take CO2 out of the atmosphere (rather than just avoid more going in). In theory this should be great too because there’s already too much in there. Get that crap outta the atmosphere! Great idea! There’s just a couple of problems. The only real feasible, economic to scale direct carbon capture technology we have at the moment is… trees. I love trees, but they are slow. Even the fast growing ones are slow. So planting trees today means waiting a decade or more for the CO2 to come out of the atmosphere in any real amount. As trees get older they get better at absorbing CO2, which is why protecting old trees is so, so much better than planting new ones. But sometimes that leads to (as it has in Australia) so-called credits from “protecting” existing trees that were never going to be cut down anyway. Pretty perverse situation.
There’s also heaps of research now into why even tree planting can be less than great, from biodiversity issues (planting all the same tree sucks), to issues reporting and calculating captured carbon accurately, to the awkward situation of the trees burning down (and releasing all that stored carbon).
There’s some very, very early (and not yet proven to scale) direct air-capture of carbon done by some companies, like Swiss based Climeworks. But the energy needed to run these machines capturing this CO2 just doesn’t really stack up at the scale needed to really make a dent. We are still emitting an insane amount of CO2 every year, so until we are well and truly awash in free, green, renewable energy and looking for ways to use the excess power we’re just adding more energy demand on existing fossil-fuel infested power systems.
Neither of these options are free, either, but the costs can vary. Compensate offers carbon credits for about 1 tonne or CO2 equivalent emissions reduction for €35. Not that cheap. Compensate synthesize their own carbon credits by blending a dozen projects together, so that, for instance, if one project doesn’t quite pan out as well as predicted there’s still actual emissions reductions or removals in the same ‘carbon credit’ you’ve paid for. Another well-regarded carbon reductions outfit is Ecologi – who do plantings and other forestry type interventions, as well as new renewable generation projects, and the standard efficiency improvement approaches to produce carbon credits. Their projects list is nice and diverse. I couldn’t find a price per tonne of emissions, but reverse engineering from their pricing suggests they’re getting about $33 (AUD) per tonne.
Let’s stick with Compensate’s €35 price per tonne, how much would that cost for Ms Swift’s flights? 8,293.54 tonnes of CO2 @ €35 per tonne is €290,273. Chump change for Taylor, probably.
For a comparison, and to get a sense of the scale of Ms Swift's emissions, some other notable game industry figures and their flights:
The Famous Valve Company Holiday
Valve’s whole-of-company annual holiday to Hawaii we can guesstimate emissions (and potential offset expenses) for too. Three Jumbo jets flying from SEATAC to Honolulu International Airport, according to flight-distance.com:
The flight distance from Seattle Tacoma Intl airport (SEA, KSEA) in Seattle, United States to Honolulu Intl airport (HNL, PHIK) in Hickam Afb, United States is 4,307 Kilometers.
Estimated flight time based on Boeing model 747-200
Flight duration for this flight, travelling in an aircraft of Boeing is 04 hours 44 mins including average taxi time at departure and arrival airports.
To estimate the CO2 emissions from these trips, I’ll use a figure of 250 kg CO2 equivalent per hour of flight (taken from a good summary of different calculation methods here) which when multiplied by the duration (x 4.73 hrs) gives us 1,182.5 kg CO2. Multiply this by 3 (for three planes making the trip) and then double it (to account for the return), and we get a figure of 7.01 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Which is still miles behind the legendary emissions of Ms Swift’s jet-setting.
Taking Boeing 747-400 fuel efficiency as being 0.064L per Km (taken from here – again, I can only hope this is correct) which translates to 15.625L per Km (hows thats for bad mileage!!). Travelling from Seattle to Hawaii using the original distance of 4307 km then would seem to use 67,296L of fuel. Multiplied by 3.15 for the fuel emissions factor (from Carbon Independent again, but also the same as used by Yard) gives a whole-plane-whole-trip CO2 emissions value of 201,890 kg, or 201.9 tonnes. That's one leg, so double it, and then x3 for the three planes, and we get 1,211 tonnes for the whole valve holiday. At the same €35 per ton cost, that's €42,385 to offset the whole trip. Still one whole order of magnitude lower than Taylor's emissions though.
And these emissions are shared across the workers and families of Valve employees, as well. Just goes to show how unbelievably bad private jets are.
To offset the emissions from the entire Valve company holiday at €35 per tonne is only about €42,385. (Bit less of a bargain than it initially seemed).
Richard Garriott’s Space Flight
Remember when Richard Garriott went into outer space? He flew to the ISS for 14 days on a Soyuz rocket in 2008. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found it very hard to find emissions factors for rocket launches. One article in The Conversation puts a rough figure of “50 to 100 times” more CO2 than the per-passenger emissions of a long-haul flight, which sounds about right. The Soyuz that Garriott travelled on runs on a kerosene style propellant called RP1 – which a Space.com comparison of different fuels describes as “reliable, but sooty”. Treehugger.com (what a great name for a website) noted that each SpaceX Falcon 9 (which also uses RP1 fuel) used “112,184 Kilograms, with each Kg of fuel releasing 3 Kg of CO2, so each launch releases 336,552 Kg of CO2” or 336.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Assuming for simplicity’s sake that Garriott’s Soyuz flight used the same amount (despite being a different rocket, and maybe not being as big as the Falcon 9) and that the Soyuz was carrying 3 passengers, then Garriott’s emissions bill only comes to about 112 tonnes of CO2 for his trip to space. Offsetting this much at the same €35 a tonne is only another €3920 – another bargain, considering that Garriott reportedly paid $25 million USD in 2008 for the privilege. A small price to pay for peace of mind.
After returning to Earth, Richard wrote the following about his learning experience from the trip, in a piece for the Environmental Hall of Fame (check out their incredible website by the way – an incredible relic from a bygone era):
I learned how fragile the Earth and the atmosphere surrounding it really are. I was inspired to come back home to Austin, Texas, and make a difference; to become involved in community and personal environmental activities.
He goes on to detail some of the lifestyle changes he made in response – a heartwarming story, and seemingly another case of the ‘overview effect’ which seems to happen to many space travellers. Garriott goes on to explain that he added more insulation to his home (great for comfort and energy efficiency!), added solar panels (always awesome!), energy efficient lights (an easy choice these days) and tried to start some other more speculative longer term initiatives. He also went on to help promote the city of Austin’s efforts to reduce packaging and landfill waste. All good stuff.
Richard if you ever read this post, I’d love to hear about what environmental initiatives you’ve been working on since – and whether you have ever thought about offsetting the emissions from your spaceflight. Drop me a line! We can work it out properly.
The same goes for anyone else thinking about offsetting their travel emissions. Get in touch and we’ll use all the tools we have to push ever so slightly towards the goal of zero emissions. In the next few weeks I’m hoping to be able to share an exciting announcement in this space (no pun intended) about a new way I’m hoping to help the games industry kick some climate goals.
Both the Valve company holiday and Garriott's trip to space are way less than Taylor Swift's private jet habits – which are literally many times worse in terms of emissions, and hardly anyone gets to share in the benefit. Even though these thousands of tonnes of CO2 emissions from Swift's jets are still just a drop in a huge ocean of emissions that happen every single day, it speaks to the level of inequality, and the disconnection from ordinary experience that a certain kind of wealth brings. One in which you can quite easily emit over 1000 times more than the average person's annual emissions, in just six months.
We've got such a long road ahead of us.
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