By Chris Armstrong, professor of political theory at the University of Southampton and the author of A Blue New Deal: Why We Need a New Politics for the Ocean and the forthcoming Global Justice and the Biodiversity Crisis: Conservation in a World of Inequality. Republished from an original article in the Guardian.
The rich gazed at their superyachts, and decided they were not enough. The new breed of megayachts, which are at least 70 metres (230ft) in length, may be the most expensive moveable assets ever created.
Roman Abramovich’s custom-designed Eclipse is estimated to be worth upwards of $800m. When he tires of its swimming pool, submarine and armour plating, he can use one of its helipads to fly to the $475m Solaris, which he also owns. On the way he might, perhaps, glimpse the $600m Azzam, commissioned by the former president of the United Arab Emirates.
The luxury boat industry also provides off-the-rack options: Kismet, for instance, can be bought for $184m. Either way, deep pockets are still required: the running costs can exceed 10% of a vessel’s purchase price, every single year.
There is much more at stake in this burgeoning market than these yachts’ purchase prices. Megayachts are an increasing blight on our societies, and the world would be better off without them.
First and foremost, owning a megayacht is the most polluting activity a single person can possibly engage in. Abramovich’s yachts emit more than 22,000 tonnes of carbon every year, which is more than some small countries. Even flying long-haul every day of the year, or air-conditioning a sprawling palace, would not get close to those emissions levels.
The bulk of these emissions happen whether or not a yacht actually travels anywhere. Simply owning one – or indeed building one – is an act of enormous climate vandalism. It helps, of course, that yachts are currently exempt from most of the emissions rules overseen by the International Maritime Organization. That needs to change.
Second, megayachts are a potent symbol of a world corroded by excessive inequality. While millions of people live in food and fuel poverty, billionaires are busy commissioning the most extravagant consumer goods ever created, simply to provide a change of scene away from their mega mansions. The annual costs associated with owning a $400m yacht, for example, would be enough to run a small hospital in the US, or to administer 10m malaria vaccines in Africa.
Bill Gates might gain some plaudits for merely renting, rather than buying, megayachts. But the $2m he is reported to have spent on a week’s rental would be much better devoted to his foundation’s goal of ending tropical diseases.
Third, megayachts protect their owners from public scrutiny – which explains why Tiger Woods called his boat Privacy. Much more seriously, megayachts protect truly unscrupulous owners from the reach of the law. Armed guards and smoked bullet-proof glass are an effective antidote to the prying eyes of law enforcement, and it is hard to act on the suspicion of crimes when a vessel can sail out of a country’s territorial waters at a moment’s notice.
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Little surprise, then, that megayachts have been associated with crimes including money laundering, prostitution and illegal drug use. Crew members are required to sign non-disclosure agreements, which prevent them from whistleblowing. This may explain why 80% of them report low morale.
If megayachts are such a problem, what can be done about them? One suggestion is that there should be a heavy tax on large yachts. The proposal has merit, but it has two drawbacks: first, if you can afford to buy a megayacht, you can probably afford to pay the tax on it too. If megayachts are fuelling climate catastrophe, taxing them might not be enough.
Second, the fact that yacht owners can choose which country’s flag to sail under – and can fly a flag of convenience if they choose – means it would be extremely difficult to enforce such a tax.
An alternative would be to simply stop building them. In the case of nuclear weapons, our collective safety has been advanced by nonproliferation treaties, which undermine the spread of missiles and encourage their gradual withdrawal. Some activists, academics and policymakers have argued that the approach should now be applied to fossil fuels, which pose just as grave a threat to our future. A megayacht nonproliferation treaty would see countries agreeing to stop building vessels beyond a specific size.
Any effective approach will also have to target existing yachts, though, and not only new ones. Their outsized carbon footprint means that megayachts are catastrophic contributors to the climate crisis simply by virtue of existing.
One option is to bar megayachts from ports, or even territorial waters. The Italian city of Naples, for instance, has recently banned yachts larger than 75 metres from its harbours. Every megayacht that is decommissioned as a result of this pressure, and every new order that is cancelled, represents a victory for the climate.
If leaders refuse to act, it is clear what is coming next. Just as megayachts arrived to displace superyachts, the world’s billionaires already have their sights on their next prize: the gigayacht.
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