• 3 minutes e-car sales collapse
  • 6 minutes America Is Exceptional in Its Political Divide
  • 11 minutes Perovskites, a ‘dirt cheap’ alternative to silicon, just got a lot more efficient
  • 5 mins How Far Have We Really Gotten With Alternative Energy
  • 3 days Bad news for e-cars keeps coming
Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger

Julianne Geiger is a veteran editor, writer and researcher for Oilprice.com, and a member of the Creative Professionals Networking Group.

More Info

Premium Content

Greta Thunberg’s Not-So-Little Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint

If you’ve heard of the phrase “carbon footprint” chances are, you’ve heard of Greta Thunberg. The impassioned 16-year-old climate activist is now the subject of countless news articles, angry tweets, and not surprisingly, a whole host of uncharitable memes.

A polarizing force, you either love her for her devoted climate fervor or you hate her for the public spanking that she unleashed on world leaders for not taking the impending climate doom seriously enough. She has shamed politicians and individuals and has unapologetically called on the world to panic along with her.

But does Greta really buy what she’s selling? And does her carbon footprint line up with this passion that is made clear by the static pained expression that lingers on her face?

Regardless of your personal thoughts on what Greta believes is a climate catastrophe, it’s rather plausible that Greta believes what she’s saying. But let’s look at her carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases produced to support her activist lifestyle.

The three biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in the United States stem from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity and heat, and burning fossil fuels for transportation, according to the United states Environmental Protection Agency. Of those three, transportation is the biggest, accounting for 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, at least in the US.

Part of Greta’s activist lifestyle has her jet setting—or more appropriately sail setting—around the globe to a major degree. She most recently traveled to the United States, and is now about to embark on a whirlwind tour as part of her global climate strike, and won’t return to Europe for nine months. She’ll now be heading to Canada, then Mexico, and then in December Greta will head to Chile for the UN climate conference. That’s a lot of traveling.

So how does Greta get around to all her speaking engagements on behalf of the planet?

You might be surprised to learn that Greta didn’t come to the US by air. No, Greta came by boat. And not just any boat—we’re talking about a zero-emissions sailboat called the Malizia II, which took her weeks. Malizia II has solar panels and underwater turbines that generate electricity onboard. Experts say that the Malizia II offers the lowest-carbon way to cross the Atlantic. Fantastic!

That’s the picture that Greta supporters would like you to focus on. But there’s another side to this eco-friendly journey: Two crewmembers had to fly across the Atlantic to New York to bring the boat back, and two of the crewmembers that made the original voyage had to fly across the Atlantic from the US to return home. That’s four flights to keep Greta from making two.  We won’t even mention the train trip Greta took to get to Plymouth, England, in order to set sail, nor will we mention the numerous freeze-dried meals, which we assume are encased in some single-use plastic product, which by our estimations, the two-man crew, Greta, her father, and some cameraman documenting the experience equated to over 200 meals. We also won’t talk about how Greta will return home, since the boat has since returned to Europe.

In a nutshell, the 5,337-kilometer flight times four people generated 2,134,800 grams of C02 by our calculations, just for the flights alone.

 “We added the trip to New York City at very short notice, and as a result two people will need to fly over to the US in order to bring the boat back,” a Team Malizia spokeswoman told the Times, adding that “The world has not yet found a way to make it possible to cross an ocean without a carbon footprint.” Related: $300 Oil: What If The Attacks In Saudi Arabia Had Destroyed Production?

Ain’t that the truth. Which is why people fly instead of bumming a ride on the only zero-emissions racing yacht in the world when they want to cross the ocean. Even if that opportunity was available to everyone, the cost would be “astronomical” according to a University of London lecturer. While this fact should not stop the world from finding new ways to travel, perhaps the flight-shaming can be toned down a bit.

Granted, Greta’s showy sea voyage, while generating C02 through the flights of the very people who sailed her to New York, is having an effect in spurring people to abandon or at least reduce the number of miles they choose to travel by air. In the end, we suspect that the four flights generated by her trip to the US have been more than offset by shamed people who have since forgone flying. Some may still see this as an act of hypocrisy, but the resulting math still comes out ahead in favor of reduced C02 generation.

But her travels don’t stop there. Around Europe, Greta often travels around Europe by train. While in theory, rail transport is less carbon intensive than traveling by the average ICE vehicle, in reality this assumption is not so black and white. Sure, if the train is traveling anyway, getting on that train doesn’t add to the carbon footprint it generates, if we were to use the assumption of sunk carbon costs—this is true even if that train is powered by diesel. But if we’re making that argument FOR trains, we also can make it for flights. Greta would likely not want us to go down that road.

Instead, we will look at the per-person carbon cost of riding on a diesel-powered train, which is not so environmentally friendly. Of course, we don’t really know which trains Greta travels on, and Europe’s rail network is extensive and includes both electric and diesel types.

(Click to enlarge)

Roughly and generally speaking, though, according to The Guardian, train travel generates 15g of C02 per kilometer. That’s significantly less carbon-intensive than air travel, which generates 100g of C02 per kilometer. But in her zeal to save the planet, her travels are definitely extensive, and even green trips add up over time. Related: Oil Pirates: The Gulf Of Mexico’s Billion Dollar Problem


Greta has one more mode of travel—a Tesla Model 3 loaned to her by Arnold Schwarzenegger to use while she’s here in the states. As an EV, it would be easy to assume that this is a zero-emission mode of transport. In reality, an EV may not generate that much fewer C02 than an ICE vehicle, according to a study from Engaged Tracking, which estimated that both electric vehicles and ICE vehicles generation 1.5 tons of C02 per year. Mostly this is because it generates the same amount of carbon to manufacture an EV as it does an ICE vehicle and when it comes to powering an EV, you’re relying on electricity that is generated from fossil fuels (63.5 percent), and nuclear power (19.3 percent), with only 17.1 percent coming from renewable sources, the EIA has calculated as of 2018.

On a final note, Greta has made some other carbon choices, including giving up eating meat, and Greta’s parents have even installed solar panels on the roof of their home.

While Greta’s carbon footprint isn’t as small as she’d like due to her extensive travels, her carbon footprint is likely smaller than most. Still, even when your name is Greta Thunberg, oil and fossil fuels is an essential part of your life, including her megaphone, which we bet is made from petroleum.

By Julianne Geiger for Oilprice.com

More Top Reads From Oilprice.com:

Download The Free Oilprice App Today

Back to homepage

Leave a comment
  • Lucas mayrhofer on October 06 2019 said:
    And you forgot also buildings, which in sweden need to be overheated.
    The very fact that she comes from sweden tells us that she would have a very hard time surviving without oil simply because this is a super cold country and you would die very rapidly in the winter. I think anyone should go camping for a couple nights in winter in europe to realise how much we are using the stuff and how much we are addicted to it. We take all the conforts of modern life for granted but none of them really are and all of them depend on oil in some way.
    To solve climate change and keep the current population levels as they are now we need to reduce our CO2 emissions by a factor of 6. this means basically reduce our energy use by 6 -> meaning basically freezing in winter eating no more meat , showering less often ... etc
    there is no way i see this happening through a standard political system. The only way people will accept such drastic reductions is in a war context. Meaning we will have wars/ civil wars. This does not look good at all. But no politicians will tell you this. these guys are paid to tell people everything will be good, they will not be elected otherwise.
  • J David on December 12 2019 said:
    Why would you quote the CO2 in grams? That is deliberately misleading, when almost everyone else talks tonnes (metric), to see a number over 2 million is designed to shock.
  • Alessia Bowers on December 16 2019 said:
    But why does it matter if the carbon footprint is bigger than it seems if it is still less than the average person. She is obviously trying very hard to reduce her carbon footprint, but people still get mad? How do we know that yours isn’t way bigger. How about trying as hard as her before being negative
  • Benjamin St james on February 04 2020 said:
    However you look at this situation. Every country has to do the same. Every man women an child need to comply. If not. Then there is no point. No matter how much money an talking you throw at this problem. It's not going to change. We humans can not control nature. To solve it. We have to compromise and live alongside nature. People like greta have no place in all this. Were not stupid. We all know what's going on. We can see it. Greta just wants her cake and to eat it. Let's get with the programme. Get rid of 5 billion people. Put 1 billion out of work. End up with 500 million. Nature will still rule over humans. So stop moaning an live life as were meant too. Happy an without regrets.
  • David Barroso on April 04 2020 said:
    Julianne - You should be very proud of yourself. I’m so glad that you took the time to write this masterpiece and share it with the world. You decisively put Greta in her place. Thank you for taking the time to shine a light on this important issue. Next, I urge you to write a similarly thoughtful piece about my coworkers irritable bowl syndrome and the impact that his farts are having on “global warming.” He really needs to be taken down a peg.
  • Samantha Hooker on October 06 2021 said:
    @Alessia Bowers, because I do not travel the world warning others about climate change. In fact, I generally don't travel much at all. Our entire yearly heating and cooling isn't outrageous. So really, there is just the energy from using our computers and our TV.

    Btw, any idiot could ride both ways in a WOODEN boat. This does not require special materials made in a factory. They can eat fish and fresh produce, not pre-packaged filth. All of this is extra fossil fuel, as is hauling her sorry ass by jet, when it turns out that this solar boat isn't actually seaworthy enough on a cloudy day to make a return trip.

    All of this traveling she does is far more than the average person, who drives to work because they have a real job. In an entire year, I've done the math, and the typical person usually uses maybe 1/6 of the amount of gas miles driving to work in town than they do on one cross-country vacation (a trip across country adds 6000 miles). Now we visit my brother in Texas, so there is some expense, but in an average year, I do not go around chastizing the world for their carbon while I drive a car that literally takes ten hours of electricity to charge!

Leave a comment

EXXON Mobil -0.35
Open57.81 Trading Vol.6.96M Previous Vol.241.7B
BUY 57.15
Sell 57.00
Oilprice - The No. 1 Source for Oil & Energy News