Don’t ban private jets — make them a green testing ground

The holidays are over, the billionaires are back and a private jet in one mogul’s company has just emitted as much carbon dioxide in a single day as the average French car does in a decade.

So said a post the other day from “I Fly Bernard”, one of a new breed of social media accounts that have sprung up in France to highlight what private jets are costing the planet.

The Bernard refers to Bernard Arnault, head of the LVMH luxury group, though that particular post was about a jet belonging to the business of media tycoon, Vincent Bolloré, which did not respond to a request for comment.

Both men belong to a tiny club of the super-rich that is responsible for an outsized share of carbon emissions, as “I Fly Bernard” points out. And that message is resonating with unusual force right now as France lurches from a scorching summer of wildfires to the threat of a winter energy crisis so dire that people are being urged to embrace “energy sobriety”.

With outrage building among non-billionaires, France’s transport minister has called for private jet flights to be restricted and the head of the country’s Green Party is urging an outright ban.

Resentment is also growing in the US, where sites that have long tracked city-hopping celebrity flights are suddenly being used to flight shame as evidence of climate extremes rises. Kylie Jenner, the reality TV star, was branded a climate criminal after one site showed her private jet taking a flight of just 17 minutes in July, the same month the US reeled from record-breaking heatwaves and blazing wildfires.

Public anger about the carbon-belching elite is understandable, though the elite’s lifestyles are scarcely news. Researchers showed years ago that the world’s richest 10 per cent accounted for more than half the emissions growth between 1990 and 2015. And before the pandemic, just 1 per cent of people were causing half of all passenger flight emissions.

Yet if private jets were banned tomorrow, it would not make nearly as much difference to the climate as you might think. These flights only account for about 4 per cent of global aviation emissions, which in turn made up only 2.4 per cent of global CO₂ emissions in 2018.

That 2.4 per cent is not nothing. If the aviation industry were a country, research suggests its total emissions would have ranked number six in the world between Japan and Germany in 2019. Still, even when you take nitrogen oxides and other non-CO₂ aircraft pollution into account, the entire sector only represents around 3.5 per cent of the warming impact caused by humans, scientists estimate.

The problem lies in the explosive rise of flying, which was driving the highest and fastest growth of individual emissions before Covid struck — plus the industry’s sluggish pace of decarbonisation. Electric or hydrogen-powered planes are years away from widespread commercial use and truly green versions of aviation kerosene are expensive and scarce.

Countries that lobbied fiercely against EU efforts to regulate their airlines’ pollution a decade ago have since agreed to a global aviation carbon offsetting scheme that will shock if it proves to be effective.

But what if private jets are the answer to this unpromising situation? Instead of banning them, should regulators turn them into a testing ground for a greener aviation future?

This elegant idea comes from a 2021 report by Transport & Environment, a European group that has spent more than 30 years campaigning for cleaner transportation, often successfully.

The study says private jet owners are worth an average of €1.3bn, so they can afford to finance the development of technologies such as green aircraft. Also, the first electric or hydrogen planes will only carry a few passengers over relatively short distances, which is what most private jets do.

Adding these two factors together, the report recommends that a ticket tax of at least €3,000 should be slapped on all private flights departing from Europe. The money raised should be used to fund greener alternatives and by 2030, regulators should require private planes taking flights of less than 1,000km in Europe to be powered by green hydrogen or electricity.

The industry will moan of course. But it has had a good run for a long time. Flying has enjoyed decades of light taxation, even when it’s done in a private jet that is up to 14 times more polluting than a commercial aircraft per passenger.

Banning private jets would make a lot of people happy but in fact, it may well be better for the climate to keep them in the air.

pilita.clark@ft.com

Climate Capital

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