Researcher Stefan Gössling is worried about the effect celebrity lifestyles have on young peoples' aspirations. Celebrities define what is desirable consumption and make frequent flying look desirable, according to Gössling. (Photo: Backgrid UK/ Supplied By Xposurephotos.com)
Researcher Stefan Gössling is worried about the effect celebrity lifestyles have on young peoples' aspirations. Celebrities define what is desirable consumption and make frequent flying look desirable, according to Gössling. (Photo: Backgrid UK/ Supplied By Xposurephotos.com)

Celebrity lifestyle increases global warming: New study flight-shames Bill Gates and Paris Hilton

While Greta Thunberg and the kids are out marching for climate change to be taken seriously, celebrities like Bill Gates and Paris Hilton continue flying like the world has no limits.

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Out of the ten celebrities included in a recently published study on flight patterns of the rich and famous, Bill Gates and Paris Hilton rack up the worst CO2-emissions with their frequent flying.

Gates, who flies all over the world, emitted approximately 1600 tonnes of CO2 from flying in 2017. Paris Hilton, who flies a lot within the United States – but also takes fancy holidays all over the world – came close to 1300 tonnes of CO2 emitted. Emma Watson is seemingly the more responsible celeb, with "only" 15 tonnes of CO2 emitted from flying.

"The average annual emission from aviation per person in this world is a mere 100 kilos. Compared to that, these figures are enormous", says Stefan Gössling, professor at Lund University and Vestlandsforskning, Western Norway Research Institute.

Celebrity lifestyles with their seemingly limitless opportunities are harmful to the environment. But what’s worse, according to Gössling, is how celebrities influence social norms.

Celebrities define desirable consumption, Gössling writes in the paper Celebrities, air travel, and social norms, published in Annals of Tourism Research.

What celebrities do, we want to do. If they keep flying, we want to keep flying too.

Bill Gates travels the world partly in the name of saving it. As the wealthiest of the selected celebrities it is perhaps not surprising that he also has the highest emissions. Can all his travelling be defended with his do-gooding? (Photo: Drew Angerer/AFP/Scanpix)
Bill Gates travels the world partly in the name of saving it. As the wealthiest of the selected celebrities it is perhaps not surprising that he also has the highest emissions. Can all his travelling be defended with his do-gooding? (Photo: Drew Angerer/AFP/Scanpix)

Studying the elites

Stefan Gössling has been working on sustainable travel and tourism for a long time. He felt ashamed to fly decades before it occurred to a wider audience that this might be a thing.

And he thinks it’s about time those who fly considerably more than most people become aware that this is a harmful and deeply unequal practice.

"We know that the distribution of emissions per capita is deeply unequally distributed, and that flying is a stark example of this. When you do regular surveys however, you never reach those with the highest emissions, celebrities, the elites. This group of people is notoriously difficult to include in research. So I decided to sneak through a back door to get some figures", Gössling says.

Collecting the data

The back door in this case is social media. More specifically Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ten celebrities were selected, intended to represent different types. They also had to have a considerable amount of followers on social media.

Besides Bill Gates (business leader), and Paris Hilton (business leader and model), the following celebs were included in the material:

André Schürrle (athlete)
Emma Watson (actress)
Felix von der Laden (influencer)
Jennifer Lopez (singer and actress)
Karl Lagerfeld (designer)
Mark Zuckerberg (business leader)
Meg Whitman (business leader)
Oprah Winfrey (TV-host, business leader)

Then Gössling meticulously collected the data from their open social media profiles – all available posts made in 2017 were screened for indications of locations visited. Flights identified were then duly logged and calculations made with regard to the most direct route between two destinations. Gössling has also gone to some lengths to try to determine which type of aircraft was used – whether it be regular air traffic, or perhaps a private jet. Possible stop-overs on the way to a destination were not included.

Some of the celebrities had gaps of weeks or months when not much was posted. Gössling also notes that some travel may have been omitted due to privacy or personal security reasons. In addition private jets sometimes have to be flown back to base without passengers. These sorts of things are not included in the data. The calculations therefore most likely underestimate the actual travel load and the actual emissions, according to the researcher.

Emma Watson has the lowest CO2 emission among the selected celebrities. The photo from Watsons Instagram-account shows the actress speaking next to former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at Davos World Economic Forum.
Emma Watson has the lowest CO2 emission among the selected celebrities. The photo from Watsons Instagram-account shows the actress speaking next to former Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon at Davos World Economic Forum.

They’re super rich and they don’t really care

The idea isn’t new. In various media stories celebrities have been exposed for claiming to save the world in one initiative, and then on the other hand harming the environment with their lifestyle.

But Gössling’s goal isn’t necessarily to criticize the celebs. He doesn’t expect Bill Gates to read his research or act upon it.

"I think these kinds of people live in a world of their own. And I don’t think they really care so much about climate change. Some of them have so much money that they single handedly could set up a system for producing flight fuel that was sustainable. But they don’t. They choose to live within the current system", says Gössling.

Ten celebrities' CO2 emissions from flying in 2017

  • The figures show CO2 emissions measured in tonnes.

Bill Gates 1629.4

Paris Hilton 1261.3

Jennifer Lopez 1051.0

Oprah Winfrey 615.6

Mark Zuckerberg 485.1

Meg Whitman 379.3

Karl Lagerfeld 105.8

Felix von der Laden 29.6

André Schürrle 18,3

Emma Watson 15.1

  • Global average emission per capita is 4,75 tonnes CO2
  • Global average per capita aviation-related emission is 0.1 tonnes CO2

"The super rich in our world definitely need to wake up", he adds.

The bigger question however, according to Gössling, is what kind of a system we have created, how it is that the world is so deeply unequal.

"Around 50 people own as much as half of the Earth's inhabitants. Can this really be sustained? What does it mean if even more people become rich?"

Celebrities affect social norms

Gössling is worried about the effects of celebrity lifestyles as portrayed in social media.

"A celebrity posing outside a private jet is not primarily an association with a specific brand or model of aircraft, rather it is a representation of a lifestyle built on frequent air travel", according to the professor.

He thinks that young people are particularly prone to aspire to these celebrity lifestyles.

"I don’t use Facebook and Youtube myself, but these channels have a huge influence on how people think. If you’re reaching millions of people through your social media channels, then that constitutes real power. Everything you post will in some way or another affect social norms", Gössling says.

The celebrities in the study have a total of 170 million followers on Instagram alone.

Jennifer Lopez comes in as the third highest emitter, after Paris Hilton, with her emissions of 1051 tonnes CO2 from flying in the year of 2017. Here seen on Instagram on her way to Vegas.
Jennifer Lopez comes in as the third highest emitter, after Paris Hilton, with her emissions of 1051 tonnes CO2 from flying in the year of 2017. Here seen on Instagram on her way to Vegas.

There is Greta

At the same time, Gössling is not so sure he wants celebrities to engage in the fight against global warming. Celebrity activists often find solutions that somehow are in line with status quo, with neoliberalism, he writes.

"Celebrities who pose as if they want to change the world still want to continue with their energy-intense lifestyles. This is where the importance of changing social norms come in", says Gössling.

And there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is a new kind of celebrity in town. There is Greta.

"I have worked on climate change for 25 years. If you had asked me a year ago if I thought we’d ever get the climate debate we are having at the moment I would have said no. That we now have this debate, that we have the Fridays for Future movement, that there is pressure on the politicians. All of this is thanks to Greta Thunberg. I don’t think we can overestimate her importance."

When studying Facebook in 2016, Gössling and colleagues found that a lot of posts boasted about travel and this seemed to boost status. Nobody talked about adverse effects on the climate. In 2019, this has changed, according to the professor.

To fly or not to fly, has become a thing.

Individuals need to take responsibility

If you think you’re off the hook however, now that celebrities have been exposed as really bad for the environment and you probably fly less than Bill Gates and Paris Hilton, then think again.

Professor Gössling is of the opinion that there has been far too much focus on curbing the production side of emissions.

"Production-based decarbonization should be replaced in favour of consumption-based perspectives that assign personal responsibility for contributions to climate change”, he states in the paper.

"Sure, I can agree that it’s really hard to act in the right way. And sure, it would be great if harmful consumption could just be outlawed. This is possible, we do have these tools available. But it’s not happening", says Gössling.

"Never before in human history have we processed as much information as we do now. You can know everything there is to know about a celebrity, there is mental capacity for that, but what you could do to change your consumption patterns, that’s too much to ask for? I don’t buy it."

Also – in global terms, when looking at emissions and what is called carbon inequality – all westerners are celebrities of sorts when it comes to consumption, according to Gössling.

Be conscious, not ashamed

Felix von der Laden is a german youtube star. His youtube channel has 3,2 million subscribers. The photo from his instagram account is captioned "in private jet for the next race in Italy".
Felix von der Laden is a german youtube star. His youtube channel has 3,2 million subscribers. The photo from his instagram account is captioned "in private jet for the next race in Italy".

A recent study of Norwegian’s travelling habits confirms that the more money you earn, the more you fly.

Borgar Aamaas, senior researcher at CICERO – Centre for International Climate Research, still thinks it’s important to remember that flying only represents two per cent of the total global emissions.

"But when we’re discussing individual contributions to emissions, flying is relevant. For those of us who fly more than the average five flights per year, flying will likely be our single largest contribution to emissions."

Aamaas is not a great fan of the term flight shame, which rose to stardom in Sweden in 2018 and has since spread world wide.

"It’s a strong word, shame. I’d rather talk about conscience. To be conscious of your consumption and your carbon footprint is a good thing."

Aamaas thinks it would be interesting to do a similar study to Gösslings, but on Norwegian celebrities.

"I suppose you might find the same pattern, the more money the more flights. But not all Norwegian celebrities are super rich, so there might be some different results."

However Aamaas does not agree with Gössling in that we need to think more indvidivually to combat climate change.

Gaute Eiterjord, leader of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, prefers taking the train over flying. (Photo: Thor Due, Natur og Ungdom)
Gaute Eiterjord, leader of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, prefers taking the train over flying. (Photo: Thor Due, Natur og Ungdom)

"I usually say that we live in a grey economy. No matter what you do, there is a carbon footprint. You can buy something slightly greener, but being completely green is impossible. So I guess I’m in favour of focusing more on the production side of things, wo we can go from grey to green products. But it helps if consumers use their power to steer the market in the right direction."

Structural change is possible

Gaute Eiterjord is the leader of Nature and Youth, Young Friends of the Earth Norway. He welcomes Gössling’s research on celebrities’ flight patterns.

Eiterjord believes policies need to be put in place to make it more expensive and difficult to travel in ways that damage the climate.

"Thomas Piketty has suggested a system where the more you fly, the more expensive it gets. We can also use quota systems. Of course, the rich can pay. But in my opinion, if you’re going to fly that much, it should hurt a little."

When Eiterjord goes home to Stavanger for Christmas, he takes the train. Even though it’s more expensive and takes longer than flying.

"When I then see celebrities flying around like there’s no tomorrow, it seems like my own action becomes meaningless. They make a mockery of all the people trying to make climate friendly choices. They basically ruin it all for the rest of us."

As Aamaas, Eiterjord doesn’t agree with Gössling in that individual behaviour holds the key.

"We need both, but if I have to choose between structural and individual change I choose structural. People are waiting for political leadership. We can’t base our future on individual actions, important as they are. And it is possible. Look at Sweden! They are now building railways instead of airports. And in Sweden flying is in decline."

Reference:

Gössling, S. 2019. Celebrities, air travel, and social norms. Annals of Tourism Research, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annals.2019.102775