Comment: What’s sustainable about soaring private jet use?
July 1 - When it comes to the carbon footprint of travel, there is nothing worse than travelling by private jet.
According to European non-governmental organisation (NGO) Transport & Environment (T&E), private jets are five to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes per passenger, and 50 times more than high-speed rail, emitting two tonnes of CO2 in a single hour.
Yet despite all the net-zero rhetoric from the corporate sector, and pressure from the flight-shame movement, private jet use is booming. And not just among eco-billionaires like Bill Gates, who owns not one, but two Gulfstream G650s, which he describes as his “guilty pleasure”.
Private jet use was increasing faster than the commercial aviation sector before the pandemic, but since early 2020 has taken off. While scheduled airline traffic is still down 23% compared with pre-pandemic 2019, in the U.S. business aviation flights are up 25% from June 2019, while the UK is up 27% compared with 2019, according to latest figures from research consultancy WINGX.
While many companies say private jets allow top executives precious time to work and provide connectivity between airports not served by commercial aviation, T&E says alternative direct commercial flights exist for 72% of private aviation flights. Galling for environmental campaigners are claims by some in the industry that such flights can be compatible with corporate net-zero goals.
Gates defends his prodigious private jet use by saying that he offsets his emissions and is investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), along with carbon removal technologies.
Offsetting and SAF are also the main routes that VistaJet says will allow it to achieve its goal of achieving carbon-neutrality by 2025, which it set last year. The flight air charter company has a fleet of 70 jets that fly to 187 countries, or 96% of the world.
Since introducing offsets to customers in January 2020, in partnership with South Pole, over 85% of VistaJet members have opted to invest in certified carbon credits, the company said in its 2022 sustainability report in May. Projects funded include investing in cookstoves in China in the Mamize Nature Reserve, where 5,000 carbon tonnes have been reduced.
While green groups like T&E dismiss offsets as barely credible fig-leaves, Denise Auclair, corporate travel campaigner for T&E, says the one saving grace would be if private jet users, given their disproportionate climate impact and wealth, "played a key role in scaling up technology that can help decarbonise the aviation industry as a whole, such as good SAFs (sustainable aviation fuel) and zero emissions technologies. Private jets can be the pioneers of zero-emissions aviation, bear the cost of development and also reduce the price of these aircraft for the rest of the industry."
But while VistaJet is keen to provide data on its customers’ purchase of offsets in its report, there are no figures about its progress on encouraging the purchase of sustainable aviation fuels, which are two to three times more expensive than conventional jet fuel, and would require its well-heeled clients to dig far deeper into their pockets.
In 2020, VistaJet announced a partnership with SAF producer SkyNRG, offering its customers access to sustainable aviation fuel certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials.
It said SAF in its neat form can reduce carbon emissions by 85% compared with conventional jet fuels, and is composed of waste oils and agricultural residues.
But while the figure for neat SAF sounds impressive, one of the issues with SAF is that it can be blended with conventional kerosene at ratios of only up to 50%, based on current technologies, but could be as low as 10%, with a fifth of the climate mitigation potential.
Details of the proportions in SkyNRG’s SAF, and uptake by customers, are not included in VistaJet’s report. Nor were they provided when a request was put to VistaJet’s press office.
In July 2021, Farnborough Airport, Europe’s busiest business airport, announced that it would be offering SAF to all aircraft using the airport, in partnership with Finnish biofuel producer Neste, which it said would be “produced 100% from renewable and sustainable waste and residual raw materials such as used cooking oil and animal fat waste”.
Farnborough’s chief executive Simon Geere said: “We are fully committed to a sustainable future and are delighted to offer our customers the opportunity to make a greener choice and work with us to play an integral part in delivering against the UK government’s targets for net zero carbon emissions.”
When requested for data on how many customers had taken up the SAF option, and what proportion of SAF was in the fuel on offer, Farnborough was more forthcoming than VistaJet, but only up to a point.
“We chose a 38% blend, as we wanted to offer a higher SAF stock and send a strong message about sustainability,” Geere said in an emailed statement. He said SAF was roughly 50% more expensive than regular fuel, but declined to give volumes sold.
“SAF sales have been comparably low, but ultimately the price of the raw product is high at present. Part of our future plans is to investigate how we can engage with the aviation industry to increase SAF production and usage.”
If the private jet industry is going to try to lay any claim to being part of a sustainable future, it will have to do far better than that.