Are celebrities bad for the environment?

One hears this claim with growing frequency as critics point out the inconsistency between the pro-environment views espoused by many in the jet set and their outsized carbon footprints.

The latest incident involves England’s Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle, who came under fire for traveling to France on music legend Sir Elton John’s private jet. The story provoked charges of hypocrisy, with critics noting Prince Harry said he and Markle declined to have more children because of climate change.

This isn’t the first time Prince Harry has been in hot water over his carbon-intensive travel schedule. At the beginning of August, the prince attended a secret climate change confab in Italy that featured a long list of celebrity attendees including supermodel Naomi Campbell and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, all of whom traveled by private jet. Given that a private airplane emits just shy of 3 tons of carbon dioxide per hour, a single transatlantic flight could be responsible for more emissions than the average American produces in a year.

Some have attempted to defend the compatibility of high-carbon travel with a commitment to fighting climate change. Sir Elton fired back at his guests’ critics on Twitter, defending their commitment to fighting climate change on the basis that they had purchased “carbon credits” for the trip.

Under the carbon credit system, people attempt to offset their own emissions by paying others to emit less elsewhere. Yet as The Spectator’s Rupert Darwall notes, the carbon credit market can be easily abused. For example, the world soccer federation FIFA bought credits for the 331,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions associated with the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. These credits helped pay for a reforestation project in the Brazilian state of Rondonia. The project was ultimately suspended, however, when it was discovered that loggers had destroyed more trees in the area than all the credits sold.

Stung by the criticism, the prince has now announced his involvement with something called the Travalyst initiative, which aims to promote sustainable travel solutions — whatever that means.

There is a simpler way to ensure that celebrities like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex pay for their air travel emissions. Economists have long advocated a carbon tax as the optimal way to deal with the damages that emissions inflict on the environment. The logic behind the idea is simple: When you tax an activity, some people will stop doing it; others (for whom the activity is more valuable) will bear the additional cost of doing so. A tax on private flight of, say, a couple hundred dollars an hour would make jet setters pay the full cost of their hobbies while encouraging more environmentally virtuous behavior.

While most efficient as part of a broader system of carbon pricing, even this limited carbon tax would have an impact — without requiring money to be sent to projects that are ripe for corruption.

Taxes, of course, are generally not popular. But if high-flying celebrities are really committed to fighting climate change, they can hardly object. Revenues from the tax would be relatively minor, but they could still be used for other worthwhile purposes — such as helping to fund a payroll tax cut.

Instead of condemning celebrities for climate hypocrisy, we should help them lead by example.

Image credit: Andrea Raffin