climate change transport

The huge impact of private jets

A mile down the road from my house is Luton Airport, currently Britain’s fifth largest airport. When it comes to private jets however, it’s number one – or at least it was pre-pandemic. More private jets come and go from Luton than from any other UK airport, with Harrods Aviation and Signature both based there.

Luton Airport plans to expand using a mechanism called Green Controlled Growth, which I’ve written about elsewhere. But private aviation cannot be squared with any kind of sustainability goals. Private planes have an enormous climate impact.

Not all flights are equal, as Real World Visuals explain. A 747 flight from London to New York creates 200 tonnes of CO2. If that is divided between all the passengers, that’s 572kg each. Except that business class and first class passengers use more space, and are therefore less efficient and more polluting. A first class ticket on the same plane uses 2,835kg – and why some have suggested ending first class as a quick-win way to reduce aviation emissions.

The emissions from first class seats are knocked into a top hat by the emissions of private planes. Take your own jet to New York, and you’re looking at over 25 tonnes of CO2.

A global fair share carbon footprint, as a reminder, is around 2.3 tonnes per year. That’s what we should all aspire to, each, if we were to pursue an equitable world at 1.5 degrees of warming or less. So one transatlantic flight in a private plane hoovers up a decade’s worth of fair carbon.

Or to put a global justice spin on things, average carbon footprints in Haiti are around 0.26 tonnes a year. Taking a private jet, just once, has roughly the same impact on the planet as 100 Haitians do in a year.

This is why climate action needs to start with the rich. It’s why aviation campaigns ought to start with private planes, and among the several dozen reasons why Boris Johnson needs to sort himself out. It’s why we should take Bill Gates’ advice on the climate with a pinch of salt, when his private plane habits emit an estimated 7,400 tonnes of CO2 every year. And it’s why Luton Airport needs to choose whether it wants to be sustainable, or whether it wants to serve the billionaires.

25 comments

  1. OK, good stuff, agree in principle, but is the graphic misleading? The article does not say explicitly that they divided the Private Jet CO2 by the number of passengers (8 passengers). Did they include the whole jet, or the jet/8?
    earthbound: Clarify!

    1. I’m guessing not, because the whole point of owning a private jet is that it goes at your convenience. Does Bill Gates always fill his plane? Does he sell tickets for the other seven seats? No way of knowing, so we have to log those as his emissions.

      1. Hi Jeremy
        I agree in principle with your report.
        What would be interesting to compare is the kilometres flown by each group
        I.e passenger miles/hours by commercial jet
        Vs
        Passenger miles/hours by private jet
        This may or may not give a clearer picture
        David

  2. So if I fly in the same plane, with the same number of passengers, and I deciee to pay few bucks more for a larger seat, suddenly my CO2 emmissions increase? somehow I find it hard to believe that that extra few CM’s and menue a la carte increaes my footprint by 10. This is the problem with these dramatic headlines. They are soo far from reality that it sort of kills the message

    1. You find it hard to believe because the article is rediculous. These pieces are written to scare non-analytical people. The problem is not private jets. The challenge is to develop renewable fuel sources for private jets. And, there are several viable technologies being developed for this purpose.

      1. If it’s written to scare, it’s doing a pretty terrible job. Nothing scary about any of this.

        I’ll tell you what motivated me to write it. Last week I was at an event at a high school, where a well meaning young person stood up and told the room that nobody should fly on holiday. That struck me as a sad comment. Why should ordinary people feel bad for flying on holiday once a year, maybe less for a lot of Luton families (if ever), while the richest fly regularly with vastly inflated emissions.

        It’s not an either/or, by the way. Yes to renewable fuel sources for private jets. I’ve written about that before. Until those are ready, less private aviation. And if the world’s wealthiest want us to take them seriously on climate, they should think twice about using such a damaging form of transport.

      2. Chuck, I took a look at ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ (SAF) production statistics earlier today. A 2019 report from ATI stated that global SAF production was 50,000 tonnes whereas conventional aviation fuel production was 300,000,000 tonnes. There’s a ‘bit of a’ gap there. SAF appears to be greenwashing, it isn’t supplying even 0.05% of demand. Alternative technologies for anything other than very short range flights remain a long, long way off.

      3. It’s a big challenge not to waste time on all the people, that say the solution needs more development, the solution is in the future. It’s exactly the same as saying “give os some more time to polute”. Read “Merchants of Doubt” who describes how this is a wellknown and wellused tool in the toolbox of the egoistic poluters

      1. It’s much more a factor of weight than volume. Volume occupied vs ticket price impacts the revenue, not the fuel consumption. So sure, the business seat weighs more, but the weight of the equivalent volume in economy fully sold is much more.

      2. So “Bill Gates” can fly with a clean co2 conscience if he convinces 800 economy class users to stay at home. Of course he’s also using the ressources of a total airplanecrew and the production cost of a plane.

    2. Agree “in principle”, but nitpicking about the graphic? So many private jets have a single passenger. Even if they have 8 passengers- it’s still OUTRAGEOUS. We really need to stop all unecessary flying (flying for vacation). NOW. Not tomorrow. Not the next day. NOW. Every ton of carbon in the atmosphere saved is critical to reducing the number of catastrophic events. We should also immediately Ban Cruise Ships. NOW. They are completely unnecessary.
      Can we even survive 2 deg C. – and if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels starting today, scientists tell us the heating will be far more than 2 deg C (which would be a very difficult life for BILLIONS of people).

  3. Good article. Clear, concise and obvious. Private jets have a massive co2 footprint and more and more people fly private.
    Two solutions: restrict private or use land to farm crops for fuel. Surely option 1 is better ?

    1. How about considering that 1500 PPM C02 could be tolerated? We can work on innovations in transportation fuel and live in prosperity over the next day 300 years?

    2. We really need to stop all frivolous (aka: vacation) flying immediately. But, we can start with private jets. They are absolutely unnecessary, as are cruise ships. #BanPrivateJets #BanCruiseShips
      Clearly, most people do not understand the immediate danger we are in. We are quite literally racing towards the end of humanity- and this is not hyperbole. We need to be discussing this daily. #DontLookUp One thing to grasp is that #ClimateChange is NOT linear. It will not only gradually be get warming, more flooding, doughts, fires- but with the potential for triggering tipping points, the climate crisis is exponential, and that’s a huge concern.

      #DontLookUp

  4. What would help is to show the maths. Ton of fuel x O2 combustion = CO2 + H2O. How come a private jet produces 25Ton of CO2. How much fuel needs to be carried to reach that level (take off weight).

  5. Cutting back flights will have a huge economic impact with doubtful reductions in CO2 emissions. I believe we can all make a difference in the world through simple lifestyle changes. For example, most people don’t need those huge SUVs with 4 litre engines. It’s ridiculous. A city resident commuting from home to work than back home doesn’t need more than a 1,500cc car. Even in agricultural areas a 2.5 litre pick up can do 99% of the tasks. You need a 4 litre engine only if you live in the middle of Siberia or the Congo jungles where there are no roads. Choose to eat locally grown food, instead of food grown and flown from 5,000km away. Travel by train for short distances instead of taking a flight. Otherwise, there’s no need for dramatic changes such as restricting flights of any kind.

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