Greta Thunberg arrived in New York City on August 28 after a two-week, carbon-free trip across the Atlantic. The trip took two weeks because she traveled by high-speed yacht. It was carbon-free because the yacht had solar panels and hydro generators specifically so she would not need to fly.
Thunberg, sixteen, famously refuses to fly since, as a single individual, jet travel is the quickest and cheapest way to warm the planet. Air emissions account for between 2 and 3 percent of total global emissions and are rising quickly. In the United States alone, these emissions have gone up 26 percent since 2013. At current rates, they will triple by mid-century, right when the UN’s IPCC Report stated we must achieve net-zero emissions in order to stave off the worst of climate catastrophe. Clearly, that growth is unsustainable.
Unlike train fuel, jet fuel is largely untaxed. Deep, structural change of the entire fuel sector is necessary but will be difficult. As Bloomberg News noted in a recent headline: “Airlines were supposed to fix their pollution problem. It’s just getting worse . . . and there’s no solution in sight.” The message is clear: the private sector won’t fix itself.
Since the United States is responsible for nearly half the world’s total air emissions, and flying accounts for 11 percent of total US emissions, a Green New Deal must address aviation. Yet even the gold standard of climate platforms so far, Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal, only talks about aviation in the context of plans to fund research and development to decarbonize the sector. Conspicuously absent from the platform is the sector’s growth paradigm, or a path toward immediate decarbonization.
The aviation industry and Fox News would inevitably frame any program to address aviation emissions as a threat to Americans’ freedom to fly. But who actually gets to enjoy that freedom?
In the United States, more than half of our flights are taken by just 7 percent of the population, who take an average of nineteen flights per year. Fifty-three percent of the population doesn’t fly at all each year, and of those who do, 45 percent fly two trips or fewer per year.
And not all flights are created equal. Flying in coach counts for one-third of the emissions of flying first class because the seats take up one third of the space. Each additional luxury seat means two fewer travelers on that flight, leading to greater emissions per passenger. Yet because first and business classes are more profitable, airlines have removed coach seats to add more premium seats.
As unsustainable as first class and business class are, though, they pale in comparison to flying on a private jet, which is at minimum three times more polluting than even first class.
In just one cross-country trip, a single private jet, the Gulfstream IV, emits nearly double the CO2 that the average American emits in an entire year. Owning and flying in a private jet is a reckless behavior in times of climate crisis, and the billionaire, private jet–owning class are conspicuous carbon consumers.
Just as we can name the corporations most responsible for the climate crisis historically, we can clearly name who is accelerating the climate crisis the most recklessly today by flying private. It is billionaires like Elon Musk, who flew more than 250 times in his private jet in 2018. Musk even had his private jet fly twenty miles from its position on the other side of Los Angeles to pick him up from meetings.
Right now, the United States has more private jets than the next top ten countries combined, and 71 percent of all private jet flights take place in North America. Private jet growth in the United States is projected to rise by $270 billion in new jets over the next decade, encouraged by President Trump’s billion-dollar tax cuts, which included a 100-percent write-off on all private jets—in addition to the fact that private jets are already taxed at a rate forty times less than commercial flights.
The nine thousand projected new private jets will come at the exact same time that we must decarbonize the economy. We cannot allow this expansion to happen.
Fortunately, no one needs a private jet. We should ban them.
Private jets carry an average of just over four people per flight, and they fly empty 40 percent of the time. They are the ultimate example of excessive consumption. Private jets are a prime reason why the richest 1 percent have a carbon footprint of 175 times someone in the bottom 10 percent. Banning them would be a first step toward putting the interests of the many before those of a few.
Moreover, the rich can afford to lose their jets. According to MarketWatch, the average private jet owner has a net worth of $1.5 billion. Owning a private jet should be the textbook example of a necessary stranded asset.
While eliminating private jets will not overcome the reliance on an unsustainable aviation industry, it is part of an answer. It must be combined with an increase in high-speed rail and other alternatives to provide opportunities for low-carbon mobility.
A ban on private jets would underscore the government’s commitment to economic justice in the Green New Deal by starting with the wealthiest, highest emitters rather than penalizing the working class. Coupling the ban with a drastic drawdown in military expenditure, by specifically targeting military flights, we could begin to see a path toward a Green New Deal for aviation, as jet fuel alone accounts for more than 70 percent of the energy used by the military, emitting more than 28 million megatons of CO2 per year.
Unsurprisingly, the world leaders who fly around the world in private jets are the ones who are tasked with coming together to discuss the climate crisis. Elon Musk is still seriously asked for his opinion about our climate future.
World leaders and elites continue to fail at grappling with their own roles in the crisis. At this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF), they broke a new record, taking approximately 1,500 private jet flights to and from Davos. Last month, when Google hosted its Google Camp devoted specifically to solving the climate crisis, the same brightest minds arrived to a conference in 114 private jets. This drew the ire of both climate activists and their right-wing opponents, who reveled in the hypocrisy of arriving to a climate solutions conference in the most carbon-intensive way possible.
As Thunberg said at the WEF, “I think it is insane that people are gathered here to talk about the climate and they arrive here in private jets.”
As world leaders arrive in New York for next week’s UN Climate Action Summit, many will fly into Teterboro Airport in Bergen County, New Jersey, the second busiest private jet airport in the world. It is the premier private airport for New York City, with over 27,000 entirely private flights taking off and landing every year. In too apt a metaphor, Teterboro, already located only six feet above sea level, will soon need to be closed due to rising seas.
Elites may think they can reconcile the climate emissions of their private jets with their advocacy for climate at the summit. They will fly into Teterboro without any sense of shame. We know better: we should ban private jets as part of a Green New Deal.