Private jets are having a moment. Elon Musk banned accounts that tracked his and other celebrities’ flights after taking over Twitter last year. Flight logs for Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express”—featuring two former presidents—have highlighted the depraved private dealings of the rich and famous. Characters on the show Succession use them in just about every episode to ferry themselves back and forth between board meetings and tense family gatherings. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas accepted rides on a jet owned by billionaire Harlan Crow, who also owns a signed copy of Mein Kampf.
A new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and Patriotic Millionaires tallies up just how bad all those private jets are for the planet. Overall, aviation accounts for about 2 percent of U.S. carbon emissions. The wealthy are responsible for an inordinate share of that: Just 1 percent of the population is responsible for half of all aviation emissions. The use of and emissions from private jets have both increased by about 20 percent since the start of the pandemic. Journeys on them now account for one in six flights handled by the Federal Aviation Authority.
There is no morally justifiable reason to own a private plane. If polar bears were the charismatic megafauna that symbolized an earlier era of environmentalism, private jets could be the repulsive gilded tubes that mark the next. Despite soaring sales of these monstrosities, even die-hard Taylor Swift fans seem to realize their idol’s copious use of one isn’t a good look. She’s even believed to have included a nod to the controversy in her first single off Midnights (“It’s me, hi / I’m the problem, it’s me”). Met Gala attendee Kylie Jenner has similarly attracted ire for her frequent, sub-half-hour trips on Kylie Air, the $72.8 million pink-accented plane she bought just before the onset of a global pandemic that has claimed nearly seven million lives. On-board perks reportedly feature seared mahi-mahi and silk sleep masks.
Taylor and Kylie aren’t typical private jet owners, though. The report finds that private jet owners—0.0008 of the world’s population—are overwhelmingly men over the age of 50. Most work in banking, finance, and real estate. Elon Musk flies about once every two days and accordingly produces 132 times the emissions of the average U.S. resident. Like Musk and Jenner, these owners are often billionaires, whose main climate crimes don’t come from their planes but from their investments. Oxfam noted last year that (on average) the investments of just 125 of the world’s richest billionaires account for three million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually—more than a million times the average for 90 percent of humanity.
Jet-setting environmentalists should be no exception to elite flight shaming—or flygskam, to use the rapidly spreading Swedish term for it. Climate envoy John Kerry was successfully shamed into selling off his family’s Gulfstream GIV-SP last year and has reportedly switched to joining the plebs on commercial for most journeys. He nonetheless felt compelled to defend private fliers this year at Davos. They released 9,700 tonnes of carbon dioxide flocking to the alpine resorts in antisocial luxury last year. Nearly 40 percent of those journeys were under 300 miles, with one as low as 13, Greenpeace found.*
Short of a full reckoning, IPS and Patriotic Millionaires recommend a few actionable policy steps for curbing billionaires’ air trash—or at least collecting a bit of cash from them that could be used for better things. Researchers suggest a 10 percent tax on the purchase of pre-owned private planes and a 5 percent tax for new crafts, measures that could have collected $2.6 billion last year. Were such a regime in place when Elon Musk bought his $78 million Gulfstream G700, he would have paid $3.9 million. They also propose adding a private jet premium onto the existing federal excise tax on general aviation fuels and a “short hop” surcharge on private plane journeys less than 100 miles.
The biblical line is that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. Those of us on earth can’t know whether that’s the case. In this life, though, the wealthy should at least have a bit more trouble jet-setting between their mansions.
* This piece originally misstated the distance of the short-hop flights measured by Greenpeace.