How Bad Are Private Jets for the Environment?

Gulfstream G300 Exterior

One of the common criticisms of private jets is that they are bad for the environment. That they pollute too much and should be banned.

Celebrities are criticized for flying by private jet (see Prince Harry, Boris Johnson, Leonardo DiCaprio, or any Hollywood star). Climate activists block airports and articles are written saying jets should be banned.

On the other hand, the industry tries to justify the use of private jets, talking about the positive economic impact of private jets.

Criticism of private jets is nothing new. In the past, it was about the cost of jets. Now it is about the environmental impact.

Gulfstream G300 impact on environment
How bad are private jets for the environment? Picture: Gulfstream G300

However, most information out there about the environmental impact of private jets falls into one of two extremes. Firstly, those who are anti-wealth and anti-aviation. Therefore, this group will highlight the negatives in order to support their point.

On the other hand, there are those who are pro-aviation. This group does the opposite of the aforementioned, only highlighting the positive of private jets – typically the economic impact. Therefore suggesting that the environmental impact is worth the trade-off.

The issue with both sides of the argument is that private jets and the environment are always presented as black and white. However, like with most things in life (and indeed aviation), it’s not as simple as yes or no.

Moreover, it is important to recognize the impact of private jets solely on the environment. However, this needs to be put in context. Additionally, it is critical to understand what steps are being taken to reduce the negative impact of jets, along with evaluating if it is too little too late. It is also important to understand the benefits that private jets deliver.

Disclosure

We (Compare Private Planes) operate within the private jet industry. Ultimately, we are pro-private jet use. However, that does not make us operate in denial. We are very aware of the environmental impact of private jets. Therefore, we operate – to the best of our ability – in an independent, impartial manner. This article will look at the facts to draw conclusions. Please feel free to draw your own conclusions from the data.

The History of Private Jets & the Environment

For the purposes of this article, we will be considering the “history” of private jets spanning back to 1967. While the history of private jets started a little before this, the most relevant data comes post-1967.

Back in 1967, the Gulfstream GII (a large aircraft) burned around 579 gallons of fuel per hour.

Since then private jets have got somewhat more efficient. However, private jets have always burned around 100 – 500 gallons of fuel per hour.

Surprisingly, private jets haven’t got that much more fuel-efficient over time.

Dassault Falcon 200 Exterior

However, looking just at the numbers this way doesn’t tell the complete story. While the hourly fuel burn figures have always remained about the same, the aircraft have got quicker and capable of carrying more passengers.

Therefore, the “miles per gallon” figure would be quite a bit lower with today’s business jets than fifty years ago.

However, the concern around private jets and the environment is a relatively recent phenomenon. Therefore, manufacturers haven’t been focused on fuel efficiency for a particularly long time.

An important point to this is that nobody who flies by private jet wants them to burn excess fuel. Fuel is one of the key costs of flying by private jet. Therefore, even if you aren’t concerned about the environment, reducing fuel burn is always welcomed.

Emissions Produced

So, let’s get right to it, what are the figures? How many tonnes of carbon emissions do private jets produce?

Using our Emissions Calculator tool we can put in context the tonnes of carbon emissions produced by different aircraft.

A typical Very Light Jet, such as a Cessna Citation Mustang or Embraer Phenom 100EV, will produce around 1 tonne of carbon dioxide per flight hour. A Very Light Jet can usually carry up to four passengers.

This, therefore, works out to 0.25 tonnes of carbon emissions per passenger per hour. However, if we include the pilots in this, it comes to around 0.16 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per flight hour to fly on a Very Light Jet.

A modern light jet, such as an Embraer Phenom 300E or Cessna Citation CJ3+, will produce around 2 tonnes of carbon emissions per flight hour. These aircraft can typically carry up to six passengers in comfort.

As a result, these aircraft will produce around 0.33 tonnes of carbon emissions per passenger per hour. Once again, if we include the pilots, this figure drops to 0.25 tonnes of carbon emissions per person per hour.

When it comes to a midsize jet, such as the Cessna Citation Sovereign+ or Embraer Legacy 500, it is typical for the aircraft to produce around 3 tonnes of carbon emissions per flight hour. These aircraft can usually carry up to eight passengers in comfort. Therefore, flying by midsize jet will produce around 0.375 tonnes of carbon emissions per passenger per hour.

Again, if we include the pilots in this, then the figure drops to 0.3 tonnes of carbon emissions per passenger per hour.

And now, for the most polluting aircraft, the large jets. Within the large jets category, there is a significant range in size and efficiency. However, most large jets will produce anywhere from 4 to 8 tonnes of carbon emissions per flight hour.

These large jets can carry 12 to 19 passengers. Therefore, the total carbon emissions per passenger per hour range from 0.33 tonnes to 0.42 tonnes. Again, if we include the pilots these figures drop to 0.28 to 0.38 tonnes per person per flight hour.

So great! These numbers don’t seem too bad – private jets are fine, let’s keep flying… Well, not quite. Read on to view this in context.

Emissions in Context

The numbers above give a good idea about the emissions produced by each aircraft category and how this can be broken down to a per person figure.

Firstly, it is important to note that the most important figure is the total figure for the aircraft per hour. Very often private jets fly with just a couple of people on board, they are almost never flown at full capacity.

Secondly, private jets often fly around empty. This is because they need to go to a different location to pick up their next passengers. Therefore, it is important to add in the ferry time when calculating your own carbon footprint.

Thirdly, including the pilots isn’t strictly necessary as they are essentially a part of the aircraft. Without them, the aircraft can’t fly. It would be the same as giving your luggage an environmental impact score.

Fourth, ultimately the per passenger figure is somewhat irrelevant. Does it actually matter if the per person figure is acceptable? Surely the crucial part is the total emissions that have been produced for the activity.

Private Jets Waiting on Apron

Moreover, using the WWF footprint calculator, the UK per person target is 10.5 tonnes. Therefore, one hour flying by yourself on an Embraer Lineage 1000E will see your estimated annual quote of carbon emissions nearly used up.

And just to add insult to injury, these aircraft aren’t flying just once. Most private jets will be flown between 200 and 400 hours per year. You can, therefore, see how this quickly adds up to 200 to 3,200 tonnes of carbon emissions per aircraft per year.

Clearly, these figures are bad. Ultimately, any emissions are bad. Even if each aircraft only produced one tonne of carbon emissions per year it would be seen as too much. It comes down to tolerance at the time and how perceptions change over time.

Now that we have the figures, let’s compare them with other industries.

Firstly, global aviation as a whole contributes just over 2% of all annual carbon emissions. Business jets contribute just 0.04% of all annual carbon emissions.

Second, in 2019, electricity within the United States alone produced over 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions. For private jets to reach this figure you would need nearly 500,000 Embraer Lineage 1000E aircraft flying 400 hours per year each.

In total, the United States was responsible for around 6.5 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions.

Therefore, when you consider that if you were to fly one hour every day for a year on a Cessna Citation Mustang, you would be responsible for 0.0000056% of carbon emissions in the United States.

Rising Demand

One of the primary concerns at the moment is the rise in demand for private jets.

After the initial wave of covid, private jets have seen a significant increase in demand. Private jets have been operating well above 2019 levels.

It has been reported that in Europe alone private jet travel increased 31% from 2005 to 2019.

In terms of actual daily flights, there are, on average, around 10,000 private jet flights per day around the world.

Naturally, this is a mix of some short repositioning flights and long-haul cruises. Additionally, a significant number of these flights will be turboprops which are far more efficient aircraft.

This increase in demand is positive for the private jet industry, however, not so much for the environment.

Ultimately, the more private jets that fly, the more pollution created.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), that’s the solution, right?

Well, yes and no.

SAF is not the be-all and end-all of solving the environmental impact of private jets.

There is no doubt that using Sustainable Aviation Fuels reduces the overall environmental impact of private jets.

However, this impact is all in the manufacturing process of the fuel. When it is in the aircraft the fuel consumed per hour may decrease by 1.5% – 3%. However, given the volume of fuel that private jets burn, this isn’t going to save the planet anytime soon.

Moreover, one of the crucial issues with SAF is availability. At the time of writing (October 2021), there are only 53 airports worldwide that supply Sustainable Aviation Fuel.

However, there is good news in that 25 of these airports have been added since the start of 2021. Therefore, the rate at which SAF is being rolled out is starting to increase.

While Sustainable Aviation Fuel is not and should not be considered a long-term solution, right now it is the best solution. It is a drop-in fuel, meaning that virtually every current business jet is able to be powered by SAF. Therefore, once the supply is rolled out further all jets can accept it.

Moreover, while it doesn’t eliminate emissions it does reduce them. Therefore, it is far better than the alternative, conventional fuel.

Consequently, SAF should be viewed as a stopgap. It is the right solution to have an immediate impact. However, it is important to take other measures as well.

Offsetting Emissions

Another solution that is often touted is the offsetting of emissions produced by aircraft.

This is essentially when the carbon emissions that are generated through flying are then “paid off” by a scheme that removes carbon from the atmosphere.

The most common method of doing this is through planting trees.

Carbon offsetting programs are most common among charter companies and are used as a way to grab new clients. Many of the large charter brokers around the world speak of their offsetting schemes.

For example, Air Charter Service, PrivateFly, and Victor, all offer a convenient way of offsetting flight emissions.

However, in the grand scheme of things, carbon offsetting is not an effective method to balance out the impact of aviation.

Of course, it is far better than taking no action.

The trouble is that the PR around offsetting emissions is used to make flying guilt-free. Unfortunately, it simply doesn’t work like that.

Much like using Sustainable Aviation Fuels, offsetting is better than nothing and it’s great to take action now, however, it should not be treated as a long-term solution.

The Future

Not all hope is lost, however, as there are exciting ideas and developments on making aviation greener.

Clearly, the primary cause of pollution from aviation is through the use of fossil fuels. This is the exact same problem that the automotive industry has been struggling with.

Naturally, there are more complexities in trying to reliably develop an aircraft that can use a different propulsion system.

The two main contenders are hydrogen and electric.

Given the current state of the environment, along with the shift in public opinion, the technology for electric and hydrogen aircraft is well under development.

For example, Airbus has been developing methods for zero-emission flights since 2010. Electric aircraft have already taken to the sky. Additionally, Embraer claims that they will have a hydrogen-powered demo aircraft in the skies by 2025.

Of course, there are limitations in some of these methods.

For example, it will be decades before an electric-powered aircraft will be able to fly any sort of long-haul flight. Additionally, it will take a long time to test new propulsion methods and ensure that they are safe to use. And, unfortunately, there will be logistical challenges to roll out new fuel sources to airports and transition from the current generation of aircraft.

However, the future is bright for aviation and genuine steps are being made to try to reduce the environmental impact of private jets. These new methods just aren’t quite ready.

Economic Benefits of Private Jets

A common defense within the private jet industry is that private jets provide an exceptional amount of economic benefits. Not only through employment but also through local tourism.

For example, it has been reported that, on average, private jet passengers spend $69,000 when they visit somewhere. This cost excludes the actual cost of the aircraft. Therefore, this is all money that is pumped into the local economy of where they are visiting.

As a result, the economic benefit of each passenger – whether private or commercial – should be factored into the environmental impact of each passenger.

While this is a compelling argument and does highlight the benefits of private jets, it isn’t strictly relevant to the environmental impact. They are two separate concerns.

The issue with the environment is that it can’t be bought. Money cannot solve the problems. Sure, it can lead to the planting of trees and cleaning of rivers, however, spending while on holiday is not solving the problem.

Therefore, it is important to acknowledge that there are benefits of private jets, however, helping the environment isn’t one.

Summary

So, how bad are private jets for the environment?

Firstly, private jets are bad for the environment. There is no avoiding this. Just like driving a car, eating meat, and heating your home are all bad for the environment.

The issue is far more the extent to which they are bad, and, whether or not you should feel guilty when flying by private jet.

If you look at flying by private jet with a microscope then you will likely conclude that they are single-handedly destroying the environment. This is the kind of report that is often found whenever a celebrity is seen flying by private jet.

However, the numbers have to be put in context. Business aviation accounts for 0.04% of all global emissions. There are far more polluting and inefficient industries that aren’t under the microscope.

Moreover, because private jets are used by a small group of people it is extremely easy for the majority to shame them.

Additionally, it is extremely important to look at the steps and actions that are being taken right now by the industry, along with the current work for the future.

And finally, consider the humble automobile. They are bad for the environment. Surely there should be calls to ban all cars. There are alternative transport methods you could use. And yet, the car is still used.

In many ways, this is similar to private jets being compared with trains and commercial flights. The difference is that the majority of people own a car and enjoy the convenience. Therefore, it would be extremely inconvenient to ban the car.

Ultimately, the answer to the question will come down to your personal opinion and biases. However, when making your mind up consider the numbers, the facts, and the context that private jets fly.