By Mario Huber*
For a long time private jets were merely seen as a status symbol for wealth and success. But lately, stories highlighting their environmental impact have also appeared and rightly so. Nothing else burns as much fossil fuel for the sole use of a handful of people, thereby polluting the air and contributing to climate change. Why does society still allow them to exist despite their questionable utility?
Bans are unpopular. Yet, the UK Labour Party promised to consider banning fossil-fuelled private jets by 2025. The announcement came early last November, as the electoral campaign for the December 12 UK general election had just begun. Two weeks later, a Swiss chapter of the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion blocked the private-jet terminal of Geneva airport, denouncing private jets as an absurd mode of transport. The very same day, the youth section of the Swiss Green Party unanimously decided to include banning private jets in their platform.
Planes emit carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and water vapour at a high altitude, thereby increasing the greenhouse effect responsible for climate change. Sure, aviation causes a small share of global greenhouse emissions – though it’s routinely underestimated by figures that only consider carbon dioxide – and private jets represent only a fraction of total aviation. Nevertheless, the 20 million metric tons of carbon dioxide that private jets emitted in 2015 – around 0.1% of the global total, and on the rise – along with all the other substances that triple the climate impact of flying, are not negligible.
Traveling by private jet emits up to 10 times more carbon dioxide than flying coach and 150 times more than using high-speed trains. Thus, grounding them and having passengers switch to commercial aviation would cut down on emissions. Moreover, with less comfort and ease of access to an airplane, former private jet users would probably fly a bit less often. In fact, non-monetary deterrents are more when it comes to the super rich than fixed penalties.
For the elite
But most importantly, unlike food and heating, nobody really needs private jets. Only a tiny fraction of the global elite gets to use them. The share of humanity enjoying them is two orders of magnitude smaller than the share of the corresponding emissions.
Even this tiny group faces limited material consequences. Private jets do indeed offer scheduling flexibility, more privacy and the possibility to avoid some crowded airports used by less well-off people. But a ban would not substantially reduce mobility. Unlike switching to land or sea travel, opting to fly first class on a commercial airliner does not massively increase travel time.
Private jet users are those who fly the most and likely profited from the global economic growth of the past, which itself is responsible for climate change. Hence, it is not only a matter of practicality, but also one of ethics and climate justice to demand that they make bigger sacrifices to mitigate climate change than people with fewer means.
Sending a message
Ultimately, the message a private jet ban sends would have further-reaching effects than its immediate consequences. Decades have gone by without any truly meaningful climate change mitigation measures. The 2019 climate strikes gave momentum to the issue; however, many people – in and outside of politics or science – are still not aware of the gravity of climate change. Mass media can keep on publishing catastrophic forecasts based on state-of-the-art science and this would not change. Concrete actions impress people more than explanations or declarations of intent do.
The ban would show that even the most powerful and richest people are forced to join in to mitigate climate change. The ban would be instant proof of the paramount importance of taking swift and concrete action on fossil fuels. It would make climate policies of a broader reach more legitimate and socially acceptable.
Implementing a ban
As always, the government would need to work out the details, such as the distinction between non-commercial aircraft providing services in the public interest and luxury jets. A small number of jobs also depend on private jets, but this should not be of major concern because climate action means that many industrial branches will disappear as new sustainable businesses appear. Governments need policies to deal with the workers caught in these transitions anyway. Moreover, these workers are generally highly qualified and could easily stay in aviation or move to other technically demanding branches.
So, now what? The peculiarity of banning private jets is that it sounds radical while it is just rational. The way forward is to talk to acquaintances, local politicians or other decision makers about climate action and why it’s about time to ban private jets.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.
*About the author: Mario Leandros Huber studied mathematics, social science and economics and has worked for the Swiss government and NGOs. He started the initiative BanPrivateJets.org aimed at discussing how to curtail flying in a socially acceptable way.