Recent coverage of celebrities like Taylor Swift and politicians such as Rishi Sunak using private jets for short journeys has reignited the debate about the justifiability of their use.

As public pressure grows, some governments are attempting to reduce the number of short-haul flights undertaken by commercial and private aircraft.

“It is estimated that, in 2022, her private jet usage created over 8,000 tonnes of carbon emissions, which is well over 500 times the yearly carbon output of the average American from all sources, or around 1,000 times that of the average European,” Rob Barlow, professor of ethics and corporate responsibility at Hult International Business School, tells Airport Technology.

The emissions of private jets

The crux of the issue with private jets is that they have a dramatically higher carbon footprint per passenger than commercial alternatives.

A 2021 report from the European Federation for Transport and Environment found that private jets are five to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial flights and 50 times more polluting than trains.

The report also stated that some private jets emit two tonnes of CO2 per hour, which is staggering when compared to the average annual output per person of 8.2 tonnes in advanced economies.

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While Swift in particular has been under scrutiny, politicians and businesspeople jetting into conferences like Davos or COP28 are contributing to statistics like private jets taking off an average of once every six minutes in the UK in 2022.

“Aeroplanes are one of the most polluting methods of transport due to the variety of released gases. It is not just CO2 emissions, but also nitrogen oxides and the effects of vapour trails.”

“The altitude from which the gases are emitted also has an impact due to the greenhouse effect being stronger the higher in the air you are,” explains GlobalData analyst Will Tyson.

As a whole, air travel accounts for 2% of CO2 emissions. In contrast, militaries around the world contribute 5.5% of CO2 emissions.

Global campaigning network Greenpeace is part of the growing number of organisations lobbying to ban private jet use once and for all, arguing that, despite 80% of the world’s population having never taken a flight, the super-rich 1% are responsible for half of the world’s aviation emissions.

Regulation of private jets

Despite the EU Transport Commission ruling out a ban last year, several countries are taking matters into their own hands.

In May 2023, France banned short-haul flights and Spain is looking to do the same in 2024. France banned any flights that have a rail alternative that takes less than two and a half hours.

When the ban was announced, France’s transport minister Clément Beaune stated publicly that the country cannot tolerate the private jet use of the super-rich at a time when the public is having to make cutbacks in fear of climate change.  

The initial draft of Spanish legislation looked to ban any short-haul flights with rail alternatives under four hours. However, it was ultimately reduced to two and a half, matching the French legislation.

While a study from Ecologistas en Acción estimated that the initial plans for the Spanish legislation proposal could have saved 300,000 tonnes of CO2 by cutting 50,000 commercial and private flights a year, the amended constraint will have less of an impact.

Despite that, Barlow adds: “As the public becomes more aware of the outsized CO2 contributions being made by these kinds of flights, we will almost certainly see an increase in this kind of regulation around the world.”

Justifications for private jet use

In spite of the ills of private jet use, there remains a strong market for their use.

At a private jet conference in London Sky News cited The Jet Business founder Steve Varsano saying: “70% of all passengers that occupy corporate jets are middle management. So it’s really a utility” as opposed to what many consider to be a luxury.

Indeed, Holger Krahmer of the European Business Aviation Association has called discussions of possible bans “completely irrational”.

In contrast, Greenpeace EU transport campaigner Thomas Gelin states that the apathy and frivolous behaviour of the rich is at fault.

“Inequality is at the heart of the climate crisis, and the rise in private jet use is proof. The rich will jump on a jet to Geneva the way a normal person would pop out for a pack of biscuits, and with less thought for the environmental consequences,” he argues.

Efforts are being made within the industry to reduce the environmental impact of air travel.

“Aerospace companies are also investing in different propellants for air travel that would reduce emissions,” says Tyson.

“Alternative propellants include sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen, and electric aircraft. Cleaner air travel using these methods is easier to scale than road transport due to the number of vehicles that would need to adopt new means of propulsion.”