Billionaires in space

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Editor’s note: This is the last edition of the Transport Brief before the summer break (the next edition will be released on 31 August). In the meantime, wishing you a peaceful and enjoyable summer. Stay safe and happy travelling! – Sean

There’s an unknowable quality to space that can inspire, its silent vastness a canvass for our imagination. For decades, those who dared to venture beyond the realm of Earth held a romantic position in our minds – men and women that combined great knowledge with great courage.

Today, however, the great mystery of space is commodified. We’re well on our way to seeing space become a playground for billionaires. These days, the final frontier is just another bucket list item for the rich.

Last week saw Amazon-founder and world’s richest man Jeff Bezos blast off in a fittingly phallic-shaped rocket to spend just over 10 minutes in space, in what amounted to a glossy commercial for Bezos’ space tourism company “Blue Origin”.

Unlike Virgin founder and fellow space enthusiast Richard Branson, who also made a journey above the Earth’s atmosphere in recent days, Bezos crossed the “Karman Line” – a boundary 100km above Earth that is recognised as the beginning of space.

As Bezos delights in reminding the press, Branson’s failure to cross this boundary meant his designation as an astronaut has an asterisk next to it (as opposed to Bezos’s 10-minutes of real space time, which marks him as a bonafide spaceman).

At a press event following his trip, Bezos made the kind of tone-deaf comments that frankly should be expected from a billionaire who just returned from a jaunt to space.

“I want to thank every Amazon employee and every Amazon customer because you guys paid for all of this,” Bezos told reporters. Given Amazon’s strict anti-union stance and chequered history of how it treats its employees, the comments rankled.

Still, those with deep pockets don’t seem particularly put off – Bezos claims to have already sold nearly $100 million worth of tickets for future passenger flights.

Virgin Galactic similarly aims to put on 400 trips per year in the long term.

But the uptake in space tourism raises environmental questions. Blasting into orbit is far from a carbon neutral pursuit.

“The wealthiest 1% are already responsible for around 50% of aviation emissions. That needs to come way down, but space tourism is going to add gigantic quantities of carbon and other pollutants into the upper atmosphere,” warned Greenpeace EU climate and transport campaigner Lorelei Limousin.

For more information on the climate cost of space tourism, read the article below.

Toyota pushes for more hydrogen-powered cars (the technology it invested in)

Toyota, whose Prius hybrid brand has become synonymous with trendy, eco-friendly urbanites, has come under fire for lobbying against the transition to electric vehicles, the New York Times reports.

Although the Japanese company is linked in the minds of many with the shift to electric mobility, behind closed doors, Toyota has pushed against all-electric vehicles, instead promoting the use of hybrids and hydrogen-powered cars.

The reason is likely due to the company investing heavily in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Unfortunately for Toyota, that technology is being outpaced by electric cars.

Toyota has also used its worldwide lobbying might to push for more relaxed car emission standards and fight off electric vehicle mandates.

In a statement, Toyota denied it was opposed to electric vehicles, but added that efficiency standards should be based on what technology can realistically deliver.

Despite opposition from some auto manufacturers, the European Commission has proposed legislation that would force all new vehicles sold in the EU to be tailpipe emissions-free by 2035, a move expected to herald a widescale shift to electric vehicles.

Hydrogen-powered vehicles will likely make up the minority of sales, with the technology seen as a means to decarbonise larger vehicles, such as freight trucks.

Commission gives the green light to €800 million Italian airport scheme

Italian airports and ground-handling operators are set to receive €800 million in compensation to offset the damage caused by the pandemic travel restrictions, Brussels announced on Monday (26 July).

Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s head of competition policy, greenlit Italy’s state aid request, which will take the form of direct grants to affected companies.

“Airports are among the companies that have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus outbreak. This €800 million scheme will enable Italy to compensate them for the damage suffered as a direct result of the travel restrictions that Italy and other countries had to implement to limit the spread of the virus,” Vestager said in a statement.

The state aid includes a so-called “claw-back mechanism”, designed to recoup any support given that exceeds the actual damage suffered as a result of the COVID restrictions.

In making its decision, the Commission said the coronavirus outbreak qualifies as “an exceptional occurrence” that justifies “exceptional interventions” by member states.

A roundup of the most captivating transport news.

The climate cost of the new space race

Space tourism has become a reality in the last month, with two billionaires jetting off to brush the edge of space in ground-breaking technology, but the CO2 emissions of such trips could carry a heavy price for the climate.

Critics warn carbon price proposal would exacerbate energy poverty

Energy poverty could be exacerbated as prices rise under the European Commission’s proposed revamped emissions trading scheme, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) has warned, with other stakeholders raising similar misgivings.

Electric vehicles sales in France tripled in past two years

Plug-in hybrids and electric cars have increased in popularity in France, rising three-fold from 2.5% of all vehicles sold in 2019 to 7.5% today. The increase in sales is partly linked to the electric bonuses granted under the country’s recovery plan, dubbed France Relance. EURACTIV France reports.

Fit for 55 will penalise poor Europeans

The European Commission’s “Fit for 55” legislative package does not provide the just energy transition the EU promised, writes Martha Myers, a climate justice campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe and coordinator of the Right To Energy Coalition.

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