Taylor Swift and the top polluters department

The pop superstar claims she can offset the immense carbon footprint of her private jet but the only way for the superrich to reduce their climate impact is to fly less and choose more sustainable forms of transport.

Taylor Swift  top polluter
Taylor Swift's private jet usage amounted to an estimated 8,300 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2022, equivalent to 1,800 times the average human’s annual emissions. Image: Eva Rinaldi - Taylor Swift, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikipedia Commons

Taylor Swift’s private jet emissions, reportedly the highest of any celebrity in the world, have been making headlines. 

While the allure of celebrity gossip may be tempting, let’s shift our focus away from the individual and towards the broader implications of this controversy. This article is an opportunity to delve into the environmental issues raised by private jets and whether it is possible to eliminate the climate damage caused by chauffeur-driven aircraft. 

We’re talking about using carbon credits as a licence to pollute, and the troubling exemptions the aviation sector enjoys from climate regulations. 

Swift retribution

Taylor Swift is receiving a lot of heat for the planet-heating emissions of her private jet.  Not only is Swift topping the charts but also comes first in the list of celebrities with the highest Co2 emissions from flying, according to an initiative tracking celebrities flying privately.

Her private jet usage amounted to an estimated 8,300 tonnes of carbon emissions in 2022 – that’s about 1,800 times the average human’s annual emissions, or 576 times that of the average American and about 1,000 times that of the average European.

CelebJets, a recently suspended Twitter (X) account, run by 21-year-old Jack Sweeney is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Swift after exposing her frequent flyer status. Sweeney had previously endured silencing attempts by Elon Musk after highlighting the billionaire’s private jet usage.

The Swift saga cements a trend in which celebrities attempt to shut down those who are raising awareness of their disproportionate impact on our dwindling carbon budget even though the information used by the tracker is publicly available and in the public interest.

With the world’s lowest income groups facing the brunt of the impact of climate change, private jet usage highlights the injustice of the stratospheric emissions of the ultra rich.

Private jets and the planet’s peril

Aviation represents 2.5 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions (and likely much more in non-carbon emissions) yet only 1 per cent of the world’s population are responsible for about 50 per cent of all aviation emissions. Moreover, private planes are up to 14 times more polluting, per individual, than commercial planes and 50 times more polluting than trains, according to reporting by Transport and the Environment.

While Swift’s emissions are in the spotlight due to her celebrity status, her case points to a wider reliance on private jets within corporate culture and the political sphere, as highlighted annually at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Even some EU officials, such as European Council President Charles Michel, are under fire for excessive flying. 

As the EU sets its sights on reducing emissions by 90 per cent by 2040, the number of private jet flights in Europe is soaring, rising by almost 65 per cent in 2022 alone. Greenpeace reports that CO2 emissions from private flights more than doubled in the period, calling for a ban on private jets. Adding to the madness, the majority of flights taken by private planes are for distances under 750 km.

Offsetting: from mystery to misery

In response to critics, Swift’s representatives assured fans that the pop star purchased more than double the offsets ‘needed’ to offset the emissions from her latest tour, providing no information as to what the selected offsetting project(s) involves, who is operating it and if results are verified. 

However, despite what its name suggests, offsetting does not neutralise the climate impact of polluting activities, especially flying.

One reason for this is because the climate benefits embodied in carbon credits are nearly always smaller than the face value of the credits. Judging the exact benefit associated with a specific credit is no easy task, and simply buying double the credits certainly does not resolve this shortcoming.

This is, for example, the case with forestry projects, as revealed in our recent report and other research, which have highlighted that such credits can be overestimated by several times their actual impact.

A  CMW-commissioned overview of credit quality assessments by  rating agencies shows that the quality of carbon credits is varied but tends towards the lower end of the spectrum, meaning that most carbon credits massively exaggerate their climate impact and that a significant share of them are simply worthless in terms of climate benefits.

Some buyers  seek to inflate their carbon credit purchases to mitigate potential reputational damage, but this does not address the fundamental problem of offsetting

Another problem is that many carbon credits are nature-based (such as planting trees or protecting forests). The problem with such initiatives is that they are temporary or volatile stores of CO2 and so run the realistic risk of releasing the carbon they store back into the atmosphere, thereby potentially  amplifying the climate crisis.

Moreover, many carbon crediting projects do not provide additional climate benefits and may simply displace rather than eliminate polluting or destructive activity.

This clearly demonstrates that it is not possible to offset emissions and attempting or claiming to do so is an irresponsible manner of tackling the climate crisis. 

What this means is that Swift and others who claim to offset their carbon footprint must focus their efforts on slashing their emissions rather than suing young people who highlight their damaging behaviour. 

While there are legitimate safety concerns as to why Swift can’t travel on public transportation, flying in a private jet and emitting the same as a small town as the planet bakes is reckless and irresponsible. For shorter distances, she can travel by road and for longer distances she can fly first or business class with her security.

And declarative faith in offsetting to absolve her of the responsibility for her emissions speaks to a wider crisis with the aviation industry. The increasing number of lawsuits against airlines claiming to be ‘carbon neutral’ highlights the greenwashing practices of an industry which relies on carbon offsetting schemes such as Swift’s to obfuscate its rising emissions and stall meaningful climate action. 

Sky-high regulation dodge

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has repeatedly failed to curb aviation emissions. Although the EU is doing better, it is also not doing enough.

The majority of the EU’s aviation emissions, which are emitted by flights to and from other parts of the world, are not included under the EU ETS and non-Co2 emissions are entirely disregarded. This means that the industry heavily relies on ineffectual voluntary actions, and a weak international offsetting scheme, to combat criticism of its environmental impact and greenwash its image. 

Worse still, rather than banning or curtailing private jet use, as campaigners demand, the EU ETS exempts these aircraft from paying a carbon price and the Energy Taxation Directive exempts them from fuel taxation .

This means that wealthy high-flyers not only have a disproportionate impact on the planet, the rest of us are subsidising their luxury lifestyle choices.

Surely, those paying to travel in the lap of luxury can, at the very least, afford to pay for their gigantic pollution? 

While Taylor Swift may be the talk of the town, it’s time to put the focus where it’s really needed: reducing the disproportionate environmental impact of high-polluting activities, such as flying, to safeguard the future of our shared planet. We need swift climate action now.

Benja Faecks works on global carbon markets, with a focus on the voluntary carbon market for Carbon Market Watch. Eleanor Scott is Carbon Market Watch’s expert on EU carbon markets. This opinon piece was published originally in Carbon Market Watch. 

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