How do private jets fuel climate change?

The travel habits of the super-rich are facing growing criticism, from Taylor Swift’s Eras tour to Elon Musk’s private jet fleet.

Private planes are between five and 14-times more polluting than commercial jets per passenger, and 50-times more than high-speed rail, according to T&E data. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Campaign group Just Stop Oil threw paint over private jets at Britain’s Stansted airport where popstar Taylor Swift’s jet had just parked, in the latest protest highlighting the polluting habits of the world’s mega-rich.   

In a statement, Just Stop Oil demanded the next British government after the July 4 general election agree to a global plan to end fossil fuel use by 2030, and said 80 per cent of the world’s population had never taken a flight.

From Swift jet-setting on her Eras concert tour to billionaire Elon Musk’s fleet of planes, the use of private jets has drawn increasing criticism as concern grows over air travel’s role in global warming.

So what is the impact of private jets on the environment, and what do experts think could be done in response?

How polluting are private jets?

A private jet can emit two tonnes of CO2 in an hour -equivalent to a few months of the average person’s greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union, according to the European NGO Transport & Environment (T&E).

Private planes are between five and 14-times more polluting than commercial jets per passenger, and 50-times more than high-speed rail, according to T&E data.

Frequent flyers and private jet users are by far the worst offenders when it comes to aviation emissions.

Denise Auclair, corporate travel campaign manager, Transport & Environment

At the World Economic Forum’s Davos event in 2022, 1,040 private planes flew in and out of airports serving the Swiss mountain resort, with more than half travelling less than 750 km (466 miles), according to a report commissioned by Greenpeace.

“If you break it down by passenger and kilometre, it is actually the most polluting way to travel in existence,” said Klara Maria Schenk, transport campaigner at Greenpeace Europe.

What does that mean for climate change?

The aviation sector accounts for about 2.8 per cent of the CO2 emissions driving climate change. While that proportion seems relatively minor, climate specialists point to the outsized impact caused by a small number of people.

Just 1 per cent of the global population is responsible for 50 per cent of the CO2 emitted by commercial aviation, according to a 2020 study in the Global Environmental Change journal.

“Frequent flyers and private jet users are by far the worst offenders when it comes to aviation emissions,” Denise Auclair, corporate travel campaign manager at T&E, told Context before Davos in 2023.

How popular are private jets?

Despite concerns over their climate impact, private planes have become more popular in recent years.

While celebrities from US media personality Kylie Jenner to Canadian rapper Drake have made headlines with their private flights tracked and published on social media, the trend is also becoming more common in business travel.

In the United States, private business jets accounted for a quarter of all flights in 2022, approximately twice their pre-pandemic share, according to aviation consultancy WINGX.

Can air travel become sustainable?

The airline industry has said sustainable aviation fuels can help it reach net zero by 2050. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says these fuels can reduce emissions by up to 80 per cent during their lifecycle compared to conventional fuel.

Meanwhile, airlines such as Air Canada and US carrier United Airlines have been buying electric planes earmarked for short trips.

Yet environmental groups say an increase in sustainable fuels could lead to deforestation as vast tracts of land are cleared to produce palm oil and soy oil for use in biofuels.

There are also concerns about how long it would take to ramp up production of these cleaner fuels, which made up less than 0.1 per cent of aviation fuels in 2021, according to the International Energy Agency.

What are governments doing about it?

Governments in Europe have started to explore steps to reduce private jet flights, and encourage passengers to take cleaner forms of transport.

In May 2023, a ban in France came into force on short-haul flight routes of less than two-and-a-half hours for which there are direct rail options, discontinuing flights between Paris and nearby Nantes, Bordeaux and Lyon.

Belgium, meanwhile, has imposed new taxes on private jets and short-haul flights since April last year.

Auclair said taxes could provide an incentive to reduce air travel while funding the acceleration of sustainable aviation developments, calling for corporate leaders to set targets and create clear travel policies as part of their climate plans.

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit

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