Aug 4, 2022 - Energy & Environment

Personal behavior — even Taylor Swift's — is a minor part of climate change

Photo illustration of Taylor Swift holding the Earth.
Photo illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios. Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Celebrities would be doing the Earth a favor if they cut back on private jets, but combating global warming will require bigger systemic changes, not just better personal behavior.

Driving the news: A recent report from Yard, a U.K. marketing firm, found that Taylor Swift's flying habits put her atop the list of celebrity emissions "offenders" — and gets at a long-running debate about how much of a difference individual decisions make.

The big picture: Private planes spew a lot of CO2. And this is hardly the first time celebrities or political leaders — including Al Gore, Elon Musk and Drake — have been shamed for their carbon-intensive lifestyles.

  • A 2021 analysis from Oxfam and the Institute for European Environmental Policy found that consumption by the world's richest 1% accounted for 15% of global emissions in 2015.
  • Transport & Environment, a European NGO, estimates an hour-long flight in a private jet can emit roughly a fourth of the average European's annual emissions.

Yes, but: Slashing emissions enough to meet Paris agreement goals would require deep, systemic policy changes.

  • Think tougher regulations on polluting industries, putting a price on carbon emissions, more government finance for clean tech, and more.

What they're saying: "My feeling is that while I would prefer Taylor Swift make more responsible transportation decisions, shouting at celebrities on the internet is not in my personal top 10 list of policy levers," NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel said via email.

  • (Swift disputes the report about her private jet usage. Yard admits it's "not conclusive," and is based on one celeb-flight tracking Twitter account. Swift's camp says it captured flights from people who borrowed the jet; Jay-Z's rep told the Washington Post that it tracked a plane he doesn't even own.)

The intrigue: Some activists and academics also say focus on the average person's personal habits — flying, driving, food choices and so forth — can actually take the pressure off of the fossil fuel industry.

  • They note, for instance, that oil giant BP launched a campaign in the mid-2000s to help people calculate their own "carbon footprint," helping to push the term into the mainstream.

Zoom in: A major International Energy Agency report on pathways to reaching net-zero global emissions in 2050 helps to put personal decisions into context.

  • It calls them an "important part of the toolkit," especially in especially richer parts of the world "where energy intensive lifestyles are the norm."
  • CO2 emissions between 2021 and 2050 could be about 4% lower through behavioral changes like driving less, driving slower, using less climate control and curbing business travel, the report says.

Our thought bubble: Policy can influence personal behavior on a broad scale.

  • Democrats' big energy and climate deal has a suite of new or extended tax incentives to make it easier for people to green up their homes and travel.
  • There are subsidies for buying electric cars, installing solar panels, efficient appliances and cleaner equipment like heat pumps for heating and cooling, and much more.

The bottom line: "It's tempting to say that whatever Kim [Kardashian] or Jay-Z or whoever does is just a distraction. In the end, of course, it's policy. But: The buck stops with the consumer," said Columbia University climate economist Gernot Wagner said via email.

  • "That puts particular burden on those with the power to influence — and, more broadly, with the money and wherewithal to show the way," adds Wagner, who has written on this topic.
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