Boris Johnson Takes Private Jet to Climate Summit—But Hypocrisy Isn’t the Problem

The British prime minister is pushing a more problematic climate idea.

Boris Johnson
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

WPA Pool / Pool / Getty Images

I’ve spent the past year and a half writing a book about climate hypocrisy, the central argument being that personal "purity" is all but unattainable in a system designed to promote fossil fuels. We should, I argue, spend less time pointing fingers at each other for minor transgressions, and invest more time in identifying leverage points for systems-wide change. 

You could say, then, that I had a professional—as well as a political—interest when I heard that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was in hot water for flying by private jet to a climate summit, despite a train being a viable alternative. It got me wondering:

  • Should it matter how Johnson travels, given his country is doing better than most at overall decarbonization? 
  • Is there a danger that by discussing this choice, we’re distracting from the systemic issues we really should be talking about? 

In general, I’ve tended to side with Greta Thunberg when she said she didn’t care if climate advocate celebrities flew by private jet. I’m not saying we don’t need to curb private aviation. (We do.) And I’m also not saying that choosing to fly commercial, or travel overland, wouldn’t be good. (It would.) It’s just the focus on their hypocrisy is too often used to distract or deflect from systems-level discussions. 

So in that sense, I’m not sure how much I worry that Johnson is flying private. I do, after all, understand that running a country is hard. And I also understand there are logistical and time-related challenges to taking mass transit. Even in a world of severely constrained private flight, I would not be shocked if high-level government officials are some of the last to, ahem, disembark the plane. 

What I do care about, however, is how Johnson—who pursues a relentlessly British brand of upper-class populism—seemed to revel in the controversy, and push a dangerous idea that tech will save us: 

"If you attack my arrival by plane, I respectfully point out that the UK is actually in the lead in developing sustainable aviation fuel. One of the points in the 10-point plan of our green industrial revolution is to get to jet zero as well as net-zero.”

Yet, as the International Council for Clean Transportation’s Dan Rutherford recently told Treehugger in an interview, even the most optimistic scenarios for sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) will require us to also implement significant demand-side reductions in order to get emissions down. Much like the blather over supersonic aviation, it’s extremely hard to envision a world where private aviation is still commonplace, and emissions are brought to zero via SAFs. In other words, he knew that the focus on his hypocrisy would create a distraction—and he used it to his advantage

So am I surprised that a world leader—and Johnson in particular—is traveling by private jet? Not really. Do I wish he wouldn’t? Absolutely. But Johnson is using the opportunity to “own the libs” who choose to make better choices and to push a false and unachievable vision of high energy consumption business-as-usual. 

It’s also just sad to see a leader not really taking the lead. And it’s not like he doesn’t understand the power of symbolic examples. In the past, Johnson has actually used his travel choices to promote biking: 

He knows that what he does will be noticed. So it’s hard to imagine this controversy as being anything other than a tone-deaf, high carbon way to grab some headlines and to focus our attention on an unrealistic and tech-heavy path that doesn’t require real change. 

It’s not the hypocrisy that’s the problem. It’s the clear lack of political will to really grapple with the problem.