Five tons of CO2 per hour: Are private jets frustrating our climate efforts?

Jet set stars like Kylie Jenner are currently being accused again and again that their private frequent flying can hardly be compensated for in terms of climate technology.

Five tons of CO2 per hour: Are private jets frustrating our climate efforts?

Jet set stars like Kylie Jenner are currently being accused again and again that their private frequent flying can hardly be compensated for in terms of climate technology. But to what extent are private planes actually driving global warming? A classification.

"Europe is on fire," wrote a Twitter user named Cara Lisette. Meanwhile, Kylie Jenner takes 15-minute flights in her private jet. "I could recycle everything, buy all my clothes second-hand, compost, and grow my own food for the rest of my life, and that wouldn't even begin to offset the footprint of one of her flights."

On the Internet you can even watch celebrities cover even the shortest distances in their private luxury planes. Real-time observation is possible thanks to people like Jack Sweeney. In 2020, the 19-year-old wrote a program that, based on openly accessible airspace surveillance data, recorded the movements of Tesla founder Elon Musk's private plane and documented it on Twitter. Sweeney now runs a variety of Twitter accounts that track rich people's flight activity.

Most recently, Sweeney publicized a 17-minute flight by Kylie Jenner, for which the influencer had to take massive criticism. Rapper Drake and singer Taylor Swift have also had to justify the intensive use of their luxury jets for days. Sweeney's program shows that some stars and the super-rich use their private planes like other people use taxis. But the question is: are they really destroying all our efforts to stop climate change with their jets?

The CO2 emissions from private aircraft are enormous. According to a study by the Brussels non-governmental organization Transport and Environment, a flight in a private plane is ten times more CO2-intensive per passenger kilometer than a similar scheduled flight. The study compared the consumption of the most frequently flown private aircraft in Europe with that of the most widely used large passenger aircraft. The authors countered this with the emissions of an average train in the EU - also per person and kilometer.

A person in an average European private plane causes 1300 grams of CO2 per kilometer. In a scheduled airliner like the Boeing 737-800, it's only 124 grams per person. The comparison with rail transport is even clearer: the carbon footprint of a private flight is 52 times higher than that of an average train journey in Europe.

The cited study calculates with an average European private aircraft. The authors place this between machines like the Phenom 300 and the King Air 200. But these are not the jets that are being discussed on Twitter. For comparison: The compensation site Paramount Business Jets expects the King Air 200 to emit around 2 tons of CO2 per hour. Elon Musk's jet, the Gulfstream G650, comes up to 5 tons per hour. According to the World Bank, in order to release this amount of carbon dioxide, a Briton needs on average almost a whole year of his life - with everything that occurs during this period: food, heating, electricity consumption and mobility.

In its list of the "worst private jet CO2 culprits", the British sustainability marketing company Yard has already credited singer Taylor Swift's private jet with 382 flight hours this year. With this utilization, the CO2 budget of around 15,000 Afghans should have come together at the end of the year.

Despite all these impressive figures: Measured against the carbon dioxide that is produced worldwide when burning fossil fuels, the overall contribution of aircraft is small. In 2018, air traffic accounted for 3 percent at around 993 million tons, and around 14 times as much C02 was released for power and heat generation. Of these 993 million tons, only about 4 percent can be traced back to private aircraft. At least that's what the climate researchers Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe suggest. That would be 39.7 million tons per year - a share of just 0.12 percent of the total global emissions.

The climate impact of flying goes well beyond CO2 emissions: According to a study carried out with the participation of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), two thirds of the climate impact of aircraft cannot be attributed to CO2 effects. But even increased by a factor of three, the contribution of private aircraft to global warming is still in the per thousand range. Private aviation therefore has a negligibly small share in climate change.

Private aircraft could still play an important role in the urgently needed restructuring of the aviation industry. William Todts, director of the Transport and Environment organization, responded to a written request from "Private jets are perfect for hydrogen, electric propulsion and e-fuels, and the super-rich have enough money to pay for these alternative fuels."

With reference to Switzerland, the environmental organization proposes a ticket tax for kerosene-powered private aircraft of at least 3,000 euros. From 2030, private flights on routes of less than 1000 kilometers should only be possible with machines that run on hydrogen or electricity. "It's about time Germany mandated 100 percent clean private jets by the end of this decade," Todts said. This could advance the development of alternative drives.

"The super-rich face a choice. They can either continue to be climate terrorists or become part of the solution," says Todts. The owners of private jets have the necessary financial resources and aircraft, which are usually only used for short distances anyway. Which in turn lends itself perfectly to the introduction of zero-emission aircraft, since electric and hydrogen aircraft could initially only transport a few people over short distances anyway.

(This article was first published on Sunday, August 14, 2022.)

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