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Driving Change

Are Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner and the like to blame for jet-fueled climate change?

Political leaders should leverage the private jetting industry to drive further advancements in sustainable aviation.

White private jet parked, with a red carpet leading up to the steps

Recent news stories have targeted celebrities' use of private jets, which are more polluting than commercial planes. Image via Shutterstock/Mikhail Starodubov

What has the world come to when the rich, famous and aspiring youth influencer community is shamed online in the name of climate change for lavishly flying around the world on business aviation (a.k.a. private jets) — and faces backlash for taking flights only 17 minutes long or flying more than 170 times since January? I suspect if the public shaming continues for much longer, Instagram feeds, once flowing with photos of private jets, will run dry. 

The private jetting industry is excessively harmful to the planet. One study by Transport & Environment found that in just one hour, a single private jet emits 2 metric tons of CO2, whereas the average person in the European Union emits 8.2 tCO2 equivalent over an entire year. If that is not enough, private jets are 5 to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes. That is why so many recent news stories are targeting celebrities using their private jets as the world continues to experience extreme weather conditions strengthened by climate change. 

So, what do we do? 

One part of me wants to jump on the bandwagon with certain French politicians advocating for the complete ban of private jets. However, another part of me realizes, as noted in this recent opinion article from Bloomberg, that such policy action is highly unlikely, especially as there are many important use cases for private jets, including the safety of high-profile individuals and quickly transporting lifesaving health treatment.

Instead, political leaders should leverage the private jetting industry to drive further advancements in sustainable aviation, which could help us all better combat climate change. Here are two impactful methods floating around the aviation industry that stand out to me:

1. Offer incentives and other advantages to push the private jetting industry and the billions of dollars behind it to use more sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which will accelerate the advent of larger quantities of affordable SAF for commercial passenger aviation. 

I recently spoke with Chris Cooper, president of Neste US — a producer of SAF and renewable diesel, along with a host of other climate change combating solutions — about the role of SAF in the private jetting industry. "For Neste, we work with key partnerships [such as] Avfuel, a major distributor of branded fuels throughout the U.S. and worldwide, and Signature Flight Support, the world’s largest service provider for business aviation," Cooper said. "Together, we’ve been able to open 20 distribution points where airports around the western region have the opportunity for business travelers and private aircraft users to obtain SAF." 

Cooper shared that SAF reduces aviation greenhouse gas emissions by upward of 80 percent. "The best form of sustainability in aviation [including private jets]… is to use the existing technology, which provides SAF an immediate application," Cooper said. Although it’s not the ultimate solution that the global transportation community is waiting for, it’s the first step. "... We believe change runs on renewable… so regardless of the length of the flight [or if it is commercial or business aviation], we’ll be able to create efficiencies that improve even those hard to abate sectors."

One example of an incentive to increase SAF supply is in the recent Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which offers a tax credit incentive to qualified fuel producers or blenders to produce SAF, depending on the GHG emission savings, providing upward of $1.75 per gallon. Other incentive models could also target end-users (a.k.a. rich celebrities) by offering them the ability to benefit from using SAF in their jets as opposed to conventional jet fuel, helping spur greater adoption of SAF. 

Pushing the market through incentives can accelerate the advent of more quantities of affordable SAF, which can help pour larger SAF quantities into the commercial aviation space helping accelerate emission reductions. 

2. Just as California recently enacted its zero-emission vehicle mandate for new passenger vehicles, the U.S. could implement a similar policy measure for business aviation emissions to push manufacturers and customers to use the most efficient solution where possible and penalize violations, which in turn help fund more sustainable aviation solutions. 

SAF is a great solution for private jets in the most immediate sense. It’s ready, available and growing in quantity, and governments can and should continue applying greater policy pressure to increase the use of SAF in the private jetting industry. However, just as California recently set an end date for new internal combustion engine vehicles, effectively pushing the automotive industry to work toward developing and releasing 100 percent zero-emission vehicles, a similar approach can be taken for the aviation industry. 

Electric, hydrogen and hybrid aviation solutions are being developed, tested and piloted currently, and reports point to the possibility of zero-emission aviation by 2030 for short domestic travel across smaller planes. Bain & Co. recently released a great visual showcasing this timeline and the various solutions potentially available for sustainable aviation. While it's clear that electrification is the answer for reducing passenger vehicle emissions for the foreseeable future, aviation requires an all-hands-on-deck approach to explore multiple sustainable solutions.

Pushing the market to accelerate the development and commercialization of low- and zero-emission solutions is one route. Incorporating additional policy measures to fine violations along with setting a purchase tax for private jets just like in Canada could additionally help fund more research and development into sustainable aviation solutions and accelerate the industry’s transition. 

Overall, I am not trying to paint the private jetting industry as the friendly grandma next door who bakes you cookies each Sunday. However, it’s not as bad as it may seem, as long as governments leverage the private jetting industry for positive change.

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