As countries continue to mitigate their environmental impacts to meet 2050 goals, transportation emissions have become a topic up for discussion. One of the goals of COP26 was to strategize ways to “speed up the switch to electric vehicles.” Ground transportation receives the most attention because solutions to decarbonize transportation are more readily available. Some countries are trying to promote alternatives to cars by creating bike cultures; others are focusing on the vehicles themselves, placing restrictions on emissions, or promoting electric vehicles.
However, these discussions leave out global aviation. While aviation only makes up 11.6% of global transportation-related emissions, the International Energy Agency expects the demand for passenger and freight aviation to triple by 2070. This number does not account for land use and manufacturing emissions. Currently, about 80% of the global population does not have access or cannot afford to fly. If trends continue to make air travel more accessible, that will increase emissions.
Decarbonizing Air Travel
Currently, there is no straightforward way to decarbonize air travel. While it does not have the same impact as other transportation methods, Atmosfair estimates that flying from London to New York generates 986kg of CO2 per passenger. This is more CO2 emitted in one flight than some countries produce in a year.
To address carbon emission issues, the International Civil Aviation Organization has been proposing carbon offset efforts in the form of airlines purchasing carbon credits. Planemakers are also looking into recycled materials and alternate materials that will lighten aircrafts, meaning less fuel needs to be burned during flight. Airbus is looking to create a carbon-neutral aircraft; however, much like electric cars when they were first introduced, there is a question of battery life and scalability. The easiest way airlines could cut emissions would be through adopting Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). SAF is fuel created from biomass and waste resources. Unfortunately, SAF is expensive and not widely available.
Another solution proposed by A Free Ride and CommonWealth in 2019 was banning private jets in the UK by 2025. Celebrities and political figures are often criticized, most recently at the COP26 conference, for using private jets while also championing environmental solutions. But how much of an impact do private jets really have?
The real answer is difficult to quantify.
By nature private jets generate more emissions per passenger than a commercial jet. Private jet flights only make up a fraction of the global air travel emissions at 33 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted per year. This is more than the entire nation of Denmark. When we consider how few people are being moved versus the emissions output, there is evidence of how inefficient and disproportionately damaging private jet flights can be. 40% of private jet flights are “empty leg” flights, which are flights to transport passengers, instead of simply repositioning the plane for the customer.
While some argue that a flat-out ban is extreme, The Labour Party in England viewed the ban as an incentive for private jet companies to invest in alternative fuels and electric planes. Right now, alternative fuels might be the more realistic option for private jet users. Dassault Aviation SA’s chief executive, Eric Trappier says, “Our clients, they are prepared to pay a bit more for fuel.”
A Broader Issue
Private jets speak to a larger systemic problem that has many frustrated. The wealthiest 1% of our population disproportionately pollutes the environment and the poor are disproportionately impacted by those pollutants. Arguments about fairness aside, this inequity could jeopardize our carbon emissions efforts. In an ideal world, the progression of events could look like this: private jet owners demand more efficient planes or find alternative transportation, private jet planemakers lead the aviation industry in creating electric planes or planes running on alternative fuels, and the commercial airlines are able to take that technology and scale it for consumption. There is some evidence this could be the progression. However, unless the 1% can lead these efforts and become an active part in environmental solutions, frustrations over their disproportionate impact are likely to continue.
ecomadic is a sustainable tourism brand that empowers travelers to make more conscious decisions. By curating a marketplace to easily find and identify responsible businesses to support, and providing educational publications through our online green travel magazine, ecomadic is committed to helping empower travelers make responsible choices throughout their journeys.
Want to learn more?
Climate ‘stigma’ smudges gleaming image of private jets – Climate Jets
Private jets: can the super-rich supercharge zero-emission aviation? – Transportation and The Environment
Climate Change and Flying – Our World in Data
How your flight emits more CO2 as many people do in a year – The Guardian
Cars, planes, trains: where do CO2 emissions from transport come from? – Our World in Data
Rising use of private jets sends CO2 emissions soaring – Transportation and the Environment