Global leaders (well, most of them anyway) are convening in Glasgow for a major United Nations conference. Some will travel by private or chartered plane, including countless titans of business who will show up in Glasgow to talk up their nebulous climate goals as proof that their companies are good corporate citizens.
How prevalent will private plane travel be to the conference (known as COP26)? An official guide for delegates lists two private airports among the arrival points. Climate activists have already called foul; Daniel Willis, climate campaigner at Global Justice Now, told EuroNews that the private jet guide was “shameless pandering to the rich and will only lead to an exclusive.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually took off on a private jet in the middle of the conference to go to a dinner in London with a climate denier. Private jet trips to the conference have also come under scrutiny by Sen. Ted Cruz, though with hilarious results. The Daily Mail even referred to 400 private jets that descended on COP26 as a “parade.” Complaints by climate campaigners are in good faith about walking the walk, which is more than can be said for climate-denying Cruz or the Daily Mail. But there’s a simple fix to stop the criticism from both groups in the first place. Simply ban private jet travel to the world’s premier climate conference. But let’s not stop there.
Countries could pledge to ban private jets, period. To focus on the U.S. as a prime example, the Biden administration has said it is committed to environmental justice. A private jet ban would be a great place to start. A 2020 study found that private jet trips were responsible for nearly 34 million metric tons of carbon pollution in 2016, which is more than some countries produce in an entire year. Four hours of flying on a private jet emits as much greenhouse gas pollution as the average European citizen does in a year. As a 2017 Institute for Policy Studies report notes, a single cross-country trip in a Gulfstream IV—a favorite PJ of celebrities from Alex Rodriguez to Post Malone—unleashes almost double the carbon into the atmosphere than the average American does annually.
All that pollution is coming from a tiny percentage of people. Most people in the world don’t fly at all, mostly due to cost. And the subset of the global population that can afford to fly private is even smaller. Some estimates show that not even most multimillionaires can afford such luxury.
Yet by getting rid of private jets in the U.S., the nation would be putting a dent in pollution of an industry that simply does not need to exist. North America accounts for 69% of the world’s private jets, and the U.S. beats out every other country in private jet ownership by far. A U.S. private jet ban would consign one of the most profligate sources of emissions to the dustbin of history.
For a ban to be truly effective, though, the rest of the world would need to join in. A May report also found that private flights’ carbon emissions in Europe increased by nearly a third between 2005 and 2019. What good is a ban in the U.S. if Jeff Bezos can just cross the border from Seattle to Vancouver and hop on his Gulfstream G650ER to head to Crete for the weekend?
Of course, a private jet ban would only be the start. Private jets are indicative of the wealth concentration happening in parallel with the climate crisis. The head of the United Nations World Food Programme said last week that $6 billion of Elon Musk’s fortune (a measly 2% for the Tesla and SpaceX founder) could end starvation for 42 million people. A private jet ban would similarly remove a sliver of excess from the ultra-wealthy, allowing the world’s poorest to have a better shot at not losing everything to the worsening climate crisis.
What exactly would a ban on private jets look like? A soft ban could be a 100% tax on personal jets and any air travel on them. Rich countries could fork over that tax money raised to add to the Green Climate Fund, a mechanism to help poor countries both adapt to and mitigate climate change. That fund was created in 2009 and rich countries promised to fill it with $100 billion annually by this year, but they’ve failed to keep their promise. Why not make the wealthy pay their fair share given all they’ve taken from the developing world?
Or, if that seems too complex or perhaps not stringent enough, making the ownership of such a vehicle a crime would be the most straightforward deterrent. These policies are of course no substitute for transformative, comprehensive climate policy. The entire transportation, energy, farming, and industrial sectors of the world’s economy need to be overhauled. Individual solutions alone won’t get us there, not even close. But with our carbon budget running preciously low, every single ton of pollution not emitted into the skies matters. And given the ultra-wealthy have made their millions and billions by tilting the fossil-fueled economy in their favor, it’s only fair that they step up to the plate to reverse course. I’m sure they’ll be fine in economy or on the ground with the rest of us.
Update, 11/4/2021, 4:50 p.m. ET: This post has been updated.