Calls for Taxing Private Jets of the Superrich Are Getting Louder

The math is clear: private jets emit a lot of CO2.

Young rich blonde female entering a private airplane parked on an airport tarmac.

Extreme Photographer / Getty Images

Scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil taught us that energy is money—the universal currency. That's one reason why rich people have such high carbon footprints: They have lots of money and converting it into carbon dioxide is very conspicuous. Writer Indrajit Samarajiva noted that high status itself is associated with emitting more carbon.

"As you get rich, you stop taking the bus, you drive a car, you drive a ‘sports’ car. The less efficient your car is (Lambo, SUV, cars following you) the more it signals wealth. As you get richer, you fly more, you fly private, and you begin emitting hideous amounts of carbon. And this is cool. This is desirable. This is #goals."

Many not-so-rich people are beginning to notice the big increase in private flying and are getting out the pitchforks, or at least the super glue. In November 2022, 800 Extinction Rebellion activists climbed the fences around Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport and swarmed the private jets, keeping them from moving.

“The superrich have got used to polluting as they please with a total disregard for people and planet, and private jets are the pinnacle of these luxury emissions that we simply cannot afford," activist Jonathan Leggett told The Intercept. "Our action brought them back to earth. We wanted to show the extremeness and injustice related to this manner of transport.”

Extinction Rebellion NL noted in a statement at the time:

"The wealthy ‘jet set’ is responsible for most of the flights and the highest carbon emissions, and nothing is being done to stop them. They are allowed to just carry on producing huge amounts of CO2, while people who are less well off suffer the burden of the climate crisis. This is unfair and unacceptable. It is high time aviation starts complying with the Paris climate agreement."

Greenpeace and XR/NL said in a press release that private jets cause 10 times the greenhouse gas emissions of a regular flight per passenger and even 50 times more than an average train ride in Europe. Travel by private jet has increased in Europe recently, although greenhouse gas emissions from aviation should be dropping rapidly to achieve the 1.5 degrees Celsius climate target. 

Writers Christopher Ketcham and Charles Komanoff of The Intercept use a wonderful term to describe private flying, which they say is the "true fountainhead of climate disorder": sybaritic carbon profligacy. They used radical language: "The world must rein in consumption. For reasons both symbolic and practical, the climate movement must strike not just at pipelines and mines, but also at obscene wealth."

Private vs commercial flying

Transport & Environment

It's not just the kids and the commies complaining. British charity Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) is calling for a “super rate of air passenger duty (APD)” on private jets. This is a tax charged by the British government on each flight, but those flying private pay the same as people flying business on commercial planes, even though their carbon emissions per passenger are five to 14 times higher. The charity says it's "about time that these individuals started paying for the damage their flights cause and the proceeds used to help improve public transport for communities up and down the country.”

According to The Guardian, the CBT wants people flying private to pay ten times the current rate for domestic and European travel, which would be noticed even by the superrich; the rate schedule is ridiculously complicated, but the APD is not cheap now. The government says it is already charging a lot with a new band of rates for the longest distance on the smaller planes, 601 British pounds (US$726). Even the rich would notice 10 times that.

We noted earlier that flying private is taking off due to the pandemic and pandemonium at airports, and was up 7% in 2021. It would be nice if all the protesting and the complaining by charities would make a difference and perhaps embarrass these people and reduce the amount of private flying, but it's not likely. As Kylie Jenner's infamous but now-deleted Instagram proudly demonstrated, consumption is entirely the point.

kylie Jenner tweet

Kylie Jenner / Instagram

As Samarajiva noted, it is all about consumption and emissions. "The fact is that in modern capitalist society, high status is high carbon. It’s not a coincidence that the rich emit hideously more—that is wealth: the capture, use, and abuse of energy."

Perhaps that British charity is right—it's time to tax them out of the sky.

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