The climate economy of the world’s 6,000 superyachts: ‘It is not a completely rational decision’

Superyachts are the ultimate status symbol for royal families, oligarchs and billionaires, from Jeff Bezos to Bernard Arnault. Floating palaces are a source of fascination and secrecy… and greenhouse gas emissions.

The planet-warming pollution caused by luxury vessels that benefit a few has led lifestyle social scientist Gregory Salle to call them a form of “ecocide” and “notorious isolation” in his new book, Superyachts: Luxury, Tranquility and Ecocide.

There are nearly 6,000 superyachts (that is, vessels longer than 30 meters (100 feet)) at sea, according to a report earlier this year by media and market intelligence company SuperYacht Times. The total has quadrupled in the last three decades.

“It’s hard to think of a more compelling sign of wealth than that if you own a superyacht,” said Salle, a professor at France’s University of Lille.

The concentration of wealth has not only caused the explosion of superyachts. It has also led to a divide in per capita emissions, with the wealthiest living the most carbon-intensive lifestyles.

According to Oxfam research, the world’s richest 10% already account for half of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The nonprofit found that it would take 1,500 years for someone in the bottom 99% to emit as much carbon as one of the world’s top billionaires. The ultra-rich’s emissions come from a variety of sources, including large homes and frequent air travel. But superyachts are their biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2021 study.

The annual CO2 emissions of the top 300 superyachts are almost 285,000 tonnes, according to Salle’s book, more than the entire nation of Tonga.

Superyachts are also more than just climate polluters. Sewage, noise and light pollution, particles in exhaust gases and even where ships dock can have an adverse effect on the local environment. Those outsized impacts add to the reason Salle has called the ships a form of ecocide.

The term, coined in the 1970s, refers to the deliberate destruction of nature and has often been used to describe the actions of the wealthy given their enormous carbon footprint. In 2021, lawyers proposed codifying ecocide in international criminal law, putting it on par with genocide. European Union lawmakers voted earlier this year to criminalize environmental damage “comparable to ecocide.” It remains to be seen whether the new law will be used to prosecute the use of superyachts.

Some owners are aware of the dangers their boats pose to the environment. Jeff Bezos’ $500 million superyacht Koru set sail in April 2023 with sails to help fuel its voyage. However, she still has diesel engines. Oxfam estimates that the 416-foot (127-meter) ship has emitted 7,000 tons of carbon dioxide over the past year, an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 445 average Americans.

That estimate is almost certainly low as well, as the calculations take into account that the yacht is on hold rather than in transit. The number also does not include Koru’s companion yacht, Abeona, a 75-meter support motor yacht that doubles as a garage with a platform for helicopters and jet skis.

The sails on Bezos’ boat are an exception: the vast majority of superyachts are powered solely by motor. Only eight new sailboat builds were completed in 2023, compared to 195 new motor yachts.

Understanding a superyacht’s true carbon emissions is incredibly difficult due to the lack of data collected and the inherently secretive nature of yachting, according to Malcolm Jacotine, founder of superyacht consultancy Three Sixty Marine. Using data from the International Maritime Organization, Jacotine estimates that emissions from yachts will reach 10 million tonnes by 2030 if the industry adopts a “business as usual” approach.

To help owners understand the impact of their boats, it developed two carbon emissions calculators. However, they have limitations because they are based on voluntarily reported data and estimated tons of diesel fuel.

Yachts spend between 10% and 20% of the year sailing and depending on engine power. Ships reach their maximum speed only 0.1% of the year, according to Robert van Tol, executive director of the Water Revolution Foundation. The rest of the year, the ship is a floating hotel, relying on generators that last longer and emit more CO2, according to Jacotine’s calculations.

Still, emissions data is obtained on a ship-by-ship basis, and one yacht may travel more than another in a year, making travel emissions higher, according to Oxfam researchers. Yachts are exempt from International Maritime Organization emissions standards, so any ship’s true emissions are difficult to discern. That reflects how superyachts are both ostentatious and somewhat unknowable.

“Superyachts are made to attract attention,” Salle said. “But they’re also vehicles that are really secret in the sense that you can’t get inside if you’re not invited.”

New builds focus less on getting motors up to top speeds and more on saving energy in hotel mode. But sustainability may not be at the forefront of purchasing decisions.

“Buying a yacht is not a completely rational decision,” said Ralph Dazert, head of intelligence at media and market analysis company SuperYacht Times. “It’s quite emotional because it costs you an absolute fortune.”

In 2023, the total value of yachts sold amounted to 4.6 billion euros ($4.9 billion), according to Dazert. He said the move toward sustainability will be driven largely by shipyards and engineers adding features to new construction, including the use of recycled materials. New types of fuel could also reduce emissions.

This year, Italian shipbuilder Sanlorenzo will test the first 50-meter steel yacht powered by hydrogen fuel cells, and another 114-meter yacht from German shipbuilder Lürssen with the same technology is in production by 2025 for Marc, the former Apple Watch Developer Inc. News on.

But the larger the construction, the longer the waiting time. That means it will take years for some of these features to appear on the high seas, according to Jacotine.

In a bid to clean up the image of superyachts, some owners are making theirs available for research and exploration. That includes a new 195-meter yacht owned by Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Rokke, which will be launched in 2026 with more than 50 scientists to study the ocean. (Also available for custom cruises.)

While public scrutiny is increasing, superyachts are a customer-driven industry. And for most buyers, luxury still outweighs climate concerns. Salle noted that, like many luxury items, superyachts are not just products. They are representative of a “lifestyle”, one that is currently closely linked to carbon-intensive activities.

“Ecocide is something that causes profound damage, damage that lasts over time,” Salle said. “You could apply this to what they (superyachts) are doing, not just individually… but globally.”

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