Posts misinterpret space travel carbon emissions finding
CLAIM: Report shows that “Jeff Bezos’ 9-minute joyride to the edge of space created more carbon emissions than 1 billion people produce in an entire lifetime.”
AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. The report stated that an 11-minute trip to space would, per passenger, emit as much carbon as one person emits over their lifetime.
THE FACTS: Recent posts on social media are misinterpreting a section of a report on inequality that looks at carbon emissions. The World Inequality Report, issued by the France-based World Inequality Lab, in part compares the carbon dioxide impact of the wealthiest people on earth to that of the poorest people.
The report cited space travel as “perhaps the most conspicuous illustration of extreme pollution associated with wealth inequality,” using an 11-minute flight into space to make its point. A screenshot of that section was shared on social media with a misleading caption.
“Jeff Bezos’ 9-minute joyride to the edge of space created more carbon emissions than 1 billion people produce in an entire lifetime,” one tweet shared more than 18,000 times reads.
But the section cited does not say that a trip to space emits as much carbon as one billion people do in their lifetimes, combined, as the tweet may suggest.
It says the space flight would result in emissions of at least 75 tonnes of carbon per passenger. In comparison, the report estimated one person at the lowest end of the financial spectrum is responsible for less than one tonne per year.
“It therefore takes a few minutes in space travel to emit at least as much carbon as an individual from the bottom billion will emit in her entire lifetime,” the report states.
Lucas Chancel, co-director of the World Inequality Lab and lead author of the report, confirmed to The Associated Press in an email that the “flight indeed corresponds to lifelong emissions (or more than lifelong emissions) of one person from the bottom billion, not of the entire bottom billion combined, as we make clear in the report.”
Bezos traveled to space in July aboard his company Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket. That spacecraft is powered by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, so it does not emit carbon like conventional rockets.
“Nearly 99% of New Shepard’s dry mass is reused, including the booster, capsule, ring fin, engine, landing gear, and parachutes,” Blue Origin spokesperson Alison Gregg wrote in an email to the AP. “New Shepard’s BE-3PM engine is fueled by highly efficient and clean liquid oxygen and hydrogen. During flight, the only byproduct of New Shepard’s engine combustion is water vapor with no carbon emissions.”
Still, Chancel said the World Inequality Report’s estimate for rocket emissions took into account indirect emissions, such as those required to construct such a rocket — adding that the group estimates “that at least 50 tonnes of CO2 have already been emitted before the spacecraft departs from the launchpad.”
Eloise Marais, an associate professor in physical geography at University College London, also said in an email to the AP that the “fuel that Blue Origin uses doesn’t produce carbon dioxide (CO2), as there is no carbon in the fuel.” But, she said, it does “produce other gases (water vapor and nitrogen oxides) that can harm the atmosphere.”
Associated Press writer Sophia Tulp in Atlanta contributed to this report.
This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.