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Greta Thunberg’s Not-So-Little Carbon Footprint

Julianne Geiger

If you’ve heard of the phrase “carbon footprint” chances are, you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg. The impassioned 16-year-old climate activist is now the subject of countless news articles, angry tweets, and not surprisingly, a whole host of uncharitable memes.

A polarizing force, you either love her for her devoted climate fervor or you hate her for the public spanking that she unleashed on world leaders for not taking the impending climate doom seriously enough. She has shamed politicians and individuals and has unapologetically called on the world to panic along with her.

But does Greta really buy what she’s selling? And does her carbon footprint line up with this passion that is made clear by the static pained expression that lingers on her face?

Regardless of your personal thoughts on what Greta believes is a climate catastrophe, it’s rather plausible that Greta believes what she’s saying. But let’s look at her carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases produced to support her activist lifestyle.

The three biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States stem from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat, and burning fossil fuels for transportation, according to the United states Environmental Protection Agency. Of those three, transportation is the biggest, accounting for 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the US.

Part of Greta’s activist lifestyle has her jet setting—or more appropriately sail setting—around the globe to a major degree. She most recently traveled to the United States, and is now about to embark on a whirlwind tour as part of her global climate strike, and won’t return to Europe for nine months. She’ll now be heading to Canada, then Mexico, and then in December Greta will head to Chile for the UN climate conference. That’s a lot of traveling.

So how does Greta get around to all her speaking engagements on behalf of the planet?

You might be surprised to learn that Greta didn’t come to the US by air. No, Greta came by boat. And not just any boat—we’re talking about a zero-emissions sailboat called the Malizia II, which took her weeks. Malizia II has solar panels and underwater turbines that generate electricity onboard. Experts say that the Malizia II offers the lowest-carbon way to cross the Atlantic. Fantastic!

That’s the picture that Greta supporters would like you to focus on. But there’s another side to this eco-friendly journey: Two crewmembers had to fly across the Atlantic to New York to bring the boat back, and two of the crewmembers that made the original voyage had to fly across the Atlantic from the US to return home. That’s four flights to keep Greta from making two.  We won’t even mention the train trip Greta took to get to Plymouth, England, in order to set sail, nor will we mention the numerous freeze-dried meals, which we assume are encased in some single-use plastic product, which by our estimations, the two-man crew, Greta, her father, and some cameraman documenting the experience equated to over 200 meals. We also won’t talk about how Greta will return home, since the boat has since returned to Europe.

In a nutshell, the 5,337-kilometer flight times four people generated 2,134,800 grams of C02 by our calculations, just for the flights alone.

 “We added the trip to New York City at very short notice, and as a result two people will need to fly over to the US in order to bring the boat back,” a Team Malizia spokeswoman told the Times, adding that “The world has not yet found a way to make it possible to cross an ocean without a carbon footprint.”

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Ain’t that the truth. Which is why people fly instead of bumming a ride on the only zero-emissions racing yacht in the world when they want to cross the ocean. Even if that opportunity was available to everyone, the cost would be “astronomical” according to a University of London lecturer. While this fact should not stop the world from finding new ways to travel, perhaps the flight-shaming can be toned down a bit.

Granted, Greta’s showy sea voyage, while generating C02 through the flights of the very people who sailed her to New York, is having an effect in spurring people to abandon or at least reduce the number of miles they choose to travel by air. In the end, we suspect that the four flights generated by her trip to the US have been more than offset by shamed people who have since forgone flying. Some may still see this as an act of hypocrisy, but the resulting math still comes out ahead in favor of reduced C02 generation.

But her travels don’t stop there. Around Europe, Greta often travels around Europe by train. While in theory, rail transport is less carbon intensive than traveling by the average ICE vehicle, in reality this assumption is not so black and white. Sure, if the train is traveling anyway, getting on that train doesn’t add to the carbon footprint it generates, if we were to use the assumption of sunk carbon costs—this is true even if that train is powered by diesel. But if we’re making that argument FOR trains, we also can make it for flights. Greta would likely not want us to go down that road.

Instead, we will look at the per-person carbon cost of riding on a diesel-powered train, which is not so environmentally friendly. Of course, we don’t really know which trains Greta travels on, and Europe’s rail network is extensive and includes both electric and diesel types.

(Click to enlarge)

Roughly and generally speaking, though, according to The Guardian, train travel generates 15g of C02 per kilometer. That’s significantly less carbon-intensive than air travel, which generates 100g of C02 per kilometer. But in her zeal to save the planet, her travels are definitely extensive, and even green trips add up over time.

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Greta has one more mode of travel—a Tesla Model 3 loaned to her by Arnold Schwarzenegger to use while she’s here in the states. As an EV, it would be easy to assume that this is a zero-emission mode of transport. In reality, an EV may not generate that much fewer C02 than an ICE vehicle, according to a study from Engaged Tracking, which estimated that both electric vehicles and ICE vehicles generation 1.5 tons of C02 per year. Mostly this is because it generates the same amount of carbon to manufacture an EV as it does an ICE vehicle and when it comes to powering an EV, you’re relying on electricity that is generated from fossil fuels (63.5 percent), and nuclear power (19.3 percent), with only 17.1 percent coming from renewable sources, the EIA has calculated as of 2018.

On a final note, Greta has made some other carbon choices, including giving up eating meat, and Greta’s parents have even installed solar panels on the roof of their home.

While Greta’s carbon footprint isn’t as small as she’d like due to her extensive travels, her carbon footprint is likely smaller than most. Still, even when your name is Greta Thunberg, oil and fossil fuels is an essential part of your life, including her megaphone, which we bet is made from petroleum.

By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com

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