As leaders fly to Davos, how do private jets fuel climate change?

Private jets are seen on the tarmac of Nice international airport, France, September 6, 2022. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Private jets are seen on the tarmac of Nice international airport, France, September 6, 2022. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

What’s the context?

The travel habits of the super-rich are facing growing criticism, from Taylor Swift's Eras tour to Elon Musk's private jet fleet

  • Greenpeace highlights private jet emissions at the summit
  • Private planes are 50 times more polluting than trains
  • Countries exploring taxes and bans to reduce short flights

LONDON - From popstar Taylor Swift's jetsetting on tour to billionaire Elon Musk's fleet of planes, the use of private jets by the rich and famous has drawn increasing criticism as concern grows over air travel's role in global warming.

Yet few events attract more polluting private flights than next week's World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, where heads of state, business leaders and others will discuss pressing issues including geopolitical instability and climate change.

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During the week-long event in 2022, 1,040 private planes flew in and out of airports serving the Swiss mountain resort, according to a report commissioned by campaign group Greenpeace.

Those flights caused four-times more planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions than during an average week - equivalent to the emissions of 350,000 cars, it found.

So what is the impact of private jets on the environment, and what do experts think could be done in response?

How polluting are private jets?

A private jet can emit two tonnes of CO2 in an hour -equivalent to a few months of the average person's greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, according to the European NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).

Private planes are between five and 14-times more polluting than commercial jets per passenger, and 50-times more than high-speed rail, according to T&E data.

At Davos in 2022, more than half of the flights travelled less than 750 km (466 miles), and the shortest flight recorded was only 21 km (13 miles), the Greenpeace research found.

"If you break it down by passenger and kilometre, it is actually the most polluting way to travel in existence," said Klara Maria Schenk, transport campaigner at Greenpeace Europe.

What does that mean for climate change?

The aviation sector accounts for about 2.8% of the CO2 emissions driving climate change. While that proportion seems relatively minor, climate specialists point to the outsized impact caused by a small number of people.

Just 1% of the global population is responsible for 50% of the CO2 emitted by commercial aviation, according to a 2020 study in the Global Environmental Change journal.

"Frequent flyers and private jet users are by far the worst offenders when it comes to aviation emissions," Denise Auclair, corporate travel campaign manager at T&E, told Context before Davos in 2023.

How popular are private jets?

Despite concerns over their climate impact, private planes have become more and more popular in recent years.

While celebrities from U.S. media personality Kylie Jenner to Canadian rapper Drake have made headlines - with their private flights tracked and published on social media, the trend is also becoming more common in wider business travel.

Private jet travel "started booming" during the COVID pandemic, when most commercial flights were grounded, said Schenk from Greenpeace.

In the United States, private business jets accounted for a quarter of all flights in 2022, approximately twice their pre-pandemic share, according to aviation consultancy WINGX.

Can air travel become sustainable?

The airline industry has said sustainable aviation fuels can help it reach net zero by 2050. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says these fuels can reduce emissions by up to 80% during their lifecycle compared to conventional fuel.

Meanwhile, airlines such as Air Canada and U.S. carrier United Airlines have been buying electric planes earmarked for short trips.

Yet environmental groups say an increase in sustainable fuels could lead to deforestation as vast tracts of land are cleared to produce palm oil and soy oil for use in biofuels.

There are also concerns about how long it would take to ramp up production of these cleaner fuels, which made up less than 0.1% of aviation fuels in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.

"Sustainable fuels are not going to get us on the decarbonisation path that we need to be on today," said Auclair, calling for a combination of measures to accelerate emissions reductions, including a rethink of what kind of flights are really necessary.

What are governments doing about it?

Governments in Europe have started to explore steps to reduce private jet flights, and encourage passengers to take cleaner forms of transport.

In May 2023, a ban in France came into force on short-haul flight routes of less than two-and-a-half hours for which there are direct rail options, discontinuing flights between Paris and nearby Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon.

Belgium, meanwhile, has imposed new taxes on private jets and short-haul flights since April last year.

Auclair said taxes could provide an incentive to reduce air travel while funding the acceleration of sustainable aviation developments, calling for corporate leaders to set targets and create clear travel policies as part of their climate plans.

"If you're saying as a leader that your organisation is taking steps to address climate change, then it just doesn't really make sense for you to be taking a private jet to Davos," she said.

This article was updated on Jan. 8 ahead of the World Economic Forum's 2024 meeting at Davos

(Reporting by Jack Graham; Editing by Helen Popper)

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