The real climate cost of private jets

Increasingly popular personal jet flights cause up to 14 times more pollution per passenger than commercial plane journeys

Taylor Swift private plane
Taylor Swift’s plane was responsible for the most jet emissions of all celebrities last year, according to one report
(Image credit: Faith Moran / GC Images / Getty)

The UK could meet its net-zero goals if it halved the number of private-jet flights, which are significantly more polluting per passenger than commercial flights, according to a government-commissioned study.

The report, by consultancy Frazer Nash for the Department for Transport (DfT), “was quietly released last week”, said The Times. Private jets from the UK cause about 600,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, the report said: the highest of any European country.

That is a carbon footprint “on a par with 200,000 people taking a return flight to Hong Kong”, wrote The Times environment reporter, Adam Vaughan.

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Although the US accounts for the majority of global private jet emissions, the UK and France dominate the market in Europe, accounting for more emissions than 20 other countries combined. This week France took action, banning all domestic short-haul flights where train alternatives exist.

“As we fight relentlessly to decarbonise our lifestyles, how can we justify the use of the plane between the big cities which benefit from regular, fast, and efficient connections by train?” Clement Beaune, France's transport minister told CNN.

How has private jet usage increased?

Between 2021 and 2022, the number of private flights departing from the UK increased by 75%, according to research published in March by Greenpeace.

On average in 2022, a private jet left the UK every six minutes, said the report, compiled by Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft, with a total of more than 90,000 departures.

Private-jet traffic across Europe generally increased by 64%, with the UK and Paris dominating the market.

The most popular route was from Paris to London. In 2019, 10% of all flights departing France were private planes.

“Environmentalists have been calling for stronger restrictions on such wasteful habits,” Time magazine said, “which thanks in part to pandemic travel restrictions have become increasingly popular”.

Why has it increased?

The increase is due in part to the massive rise in fortunes of the ultra-wealthy since the pandemic, said Time. The net worth of the average private jet owner is $190 million, said Business Insider.

Last year sales of private aircraft hit record highs, according to data from the International Aircraft Dealers Association (IADA), said Corporate Jet Investor.

The private jet industry was able to “bounce back much quicker” after the pandemic than commercial aviation, according to a report from clean transport campaign group Transport & Environment in 2021.

The sector is subject to “looser reporting regulations” and “fewer climate obligations”.

Other factors include a desire to avoid contagion and chaos at airports, more flexible working patterns and a growing interest in private jets as a means of transporting pets.

“There’s been quite a lot of stories about mishaps happening when people’s pets are in cargo,” Adam Golder, founder of G6 Aviation, told The Guardian. “People are more than ever willing to spend more and fly with their pets on a private jet.”

Private jets are also becoming “more accessible”, the paper said, with some charter companies allowing customers to book individual seats on an otherwise-empty plane for less than the cost of a whole jet, likely “hooking new customers, normalising this form of luxury travel and increasing demand”.

There has also been an increase in the number of first-time buyers of private aircraft, reported Reuters.

But usage could continue to increase due to airline staffing shortages and cancellations which “are sure to entice customers to seek alternatives”, said Time.

How bad are private planes for the environment?

The private jet section of air travel is, “without peers, the most carbon intensive activity that anyone can engage in”, said Transport & Environment.

In just one hour, “a single private jet can emit two tonnes of CO2”, and they frequently fly empty. For context, the average person in the EU emits the equivalent of 8.2 tonnes of CO2 over a whole year, said the NGO.

“Our report found that private jets are five to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes (per passenger) and 50 times more polluting than trains,” it said.

One local group, Farnborough Noise Group, believes that the true figure is much higher. Private planes are up to 40 times more polluting than commercial planes per passenger, it says, once the low number of passengers per plane and the significant percentage of empty flights are taken into account.

The average private-jet journey emits 5.9 tonnes of CO2, according to Greenpeace’s data: the equivalent of driving from Paris to Rome 16 times in a petrol car. In 2021-22, private jets in Europe produced more than 3.3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions.

More than half of the private flights in Europe (55%) taken in 2022 travelled less than 750km.

“Private jets are staggeringly polluting and generally pointless,” said Doug Parr, policy director at Greenpeace UK.

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.