Status Symbols with Large Carbon Footprints

At the risk of offending colleagues I deeply respect and admire, I do have one thought for the day:

A four-wheel drive Lincoln Navigator is probably the ultimate American rugged-individualist, anti-environmentalist status symbol.   Driving one for the typical 15,000 miles per year will cost you about $3,372 in fuel costs — about 1,000 gallons of gasoline at the assumed pump price of $3.37 a gallon.  Converting gallons to CO2 yields about 8.9 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent to drive a Lincoln Navigator for a year.  For comparison, the average annual global per-capita carbon footprint is about 4 tons.

A round trip ticket from New York to Durban, South Africa will result in the emission of 8 tons of CO2 equivalents (including the radiative forcing effects of air travel).  That’s right — flying from New York to Durban for the COP17 Climate negotiations is the global warming equivalent of driving a Lincoln Navigator for an entire year.  Yet the environmental law community brags about the number of students and other delegates we send to the climate conferences.  A ticket to Durban, or to Rio in 2012, is the ultimate environmentalist status symbol.

This is not meant to denigrate the real contributions of colleagues who I deeply respect and admire who are in Durban right now making a real difference (I hesitate to post this right over Dick Ottinger’s report from Durban).  But we in the environmental community will eventually have come to grips with the fact that international meetings to talk about sustainability  . . .  are not really sustainable.  Each participant ought to ask themself the question: is my participation going to lead to the equivalent of one Lincoln Navigator being taken off the road for the next year?

And don’t count on sustainable bio-fuels saving air travel in the future:  as a recent Nature Climate Change paper points out, more than half of the global warming effect of air travel comes from the warming effects of upper atmosphere jet contrails.  This warming effect occurs no matter what fuel is burned, even carbon-free hydrogen.


  1. SNS

    A wonderful post. It’s all too easy to denigrate the lifestyle choices of others when you wouldn’t make those choices anyway. Most environmental law professors wouldn’t want a Lincoln Navigator, so it’s easy for them to sneer at those who drive them. But if you asked them to give up flights to see relatives, ski the mountains, or visit foreign lands…they might fidget a bit more. Actually dealing with climate change is going to force everyone to accept lifestyle restraints. Banning SUVs is nowhere near enough.

  2. Karl:

    At least when you leave a cold northern climate in the winter for a southern destination….you should get a credit for turning down the thermostat at your empty home.


  3. Global weather change is very significant now….. extreme cold in winter and extreme heat in summer. There is still no alternate fuel source for airplane, although as you mentioned bio-fuel … I wonder when we will see it happening!

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