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Private Flights & Pollution: The Inside Story

IFM_ Private Flights & Pollution
From 2020 to 2021, private flights nearly tripled and emissions more than quadrupled

A study from Dutch environmental consultancy CE Delft hit the hornet’s nest as it found that over 572,000 private flights were recorded in Europe alone in 2022, thus producing over 3.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions.

As per the study, from 2020 to 2021, private flights nearly tripled and emissions more than quadrupled. By 2022 end, these flights increased by 1.5 times from the 2020-21 period and carbon footprints also more than doubled. This disturbing news comes amid the aviation sector increasing its investments in R&D-related activities for revolutionary concepts like Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), and electric and hydrogen aircraft, in order to meet the ambitious goal of a ‘Net Zero’ footprint by 2050.

How bad is the scene?

The above study’s data set included the 27 European Union nations as well as Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. Private flights from these regions produced some 5.3 million metric tons of carbon emissions in the last three years.

The countries emitting the most carbon from private flights in 2022 were the UK, France, and Germany. United Kingdom wore the crown of shame, as Guardian reported that the country recorded 90,256 private flights in 2022, equivalent to a private flight taking off every six minutes and emitting over 500,000 metric tons of CO2.

The most popular flight paths were recorded between London and Paris, Paris and Geneva, and London and Nice. These short-haul flight operations ranging from just 251 to 500 km reached their peak in 2022, as nearly one-quarter of all private flights were taken over short distances, routes which can be covered by alternatives like trains and bike rides.

In 2020, lockdowns were imposed to curb the COVID spread. While this resulted in civil aviation coming to a screeching halt and hurting the stakeholders financially, it also reduced global emissions.

However, this short-term gain was difficult to maintain and as the world came back into normalcy by 2022, the aviation sector’s carbon footprint has gone up again, but the disturbing aspect here is the global elites’ preference to comfort over the environment, and it complicates the EU’s efforts to reduce emissions by 55% compared with 1990 levels by the next decade.

On March 30, Greenpeace published a press release, where it called for a ban on private jets and short-distance flights on routes which have alternatives like trains, saying “It should be part of an equitable plan to address the climate crisis.”

Countries implement corrective measures

In 2022, France got the nod from the European Commission to abolish domestic flights shorter than 2.5 hours, as there were protests in front of business-jet maker Dassault’s Paris headquarters, while others reportedly participated in “sit-ins” in multiple countries that effectively shut down private airports, while calling for private jets to be banned.

Spain has plans of ending all short-haul flights by 2050, while Germany doubled its flight ticket tax in 2022 for passengers undertaking short-haul air journeys. Belgium will levy new taxes on private jets as well as older, noisier commercial aircraft from April 2023 as part of a scheme to reduce noise and air pollution.

“The noise pollution experienced by residents near Brussels National Airport, whether they live in Flanders, Brussels or Wallonia, cannot remain as it is,” Georges Gilkinet, Deputy Prime Minister and Transport Minister, said in the statement announcing the new taxes.

Aircraft using Brussels Airport currently pay a tax based on the noise levels it generates during take-off and landing. The new tax will now factor in carbon emissions as well as flight length. Any flight shorter than 500 km (310 miles) will see increased duties.

However, the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) has cautioned against an outright ban on private flights, while citing that the particular activity employs almost 400,000 people and contributes almost 90 billion euros (USD 95.5 billion) to Europe’s GDP annually.

Stats contradict EBAA’s stance

In 2021, a report from the European campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) showed that the CO2 emissions from the continent’s private jet market had increased by 31% between 2005 and 2019, rising faster than those from commercial aviation.

The report titled ‘Private Jets: Can the Super-rich Supercharge Zero-Emission Aviation’ reveals that the impact of private jets in terms of carbon emissions was ten times bigger than the one caused by commercial aviation and 50 times more severe than trains.

T&E aviation director Andrew Murphy said, “Flying on a private jet is probably the worst thing you can do for the environment. And yet, super-rich super polluters are flying around like there’s no climate crisis.”

According to T&E, the most common type of private jet in the European market is the Cessna Citation Excel, which can carry eight passengers and has a fully-loaded range of 2,700km and is perfectly suitable for short-haul flights.

The second most used is the Beechcraft King Air, a turboprop aircraft which can fit up to six flyers (including crew and passengers), with a ferry range of 1,900 km. As reported by Transport & Environment in 2021, leisure was said to be the primary reason for flying private, especially during the summer months.

In a past survey by private aviation buyer’s Guide Private Jet Card Comparisons (a survey which was reported by Airport Technology), 46% of respondents said they were using private aviation to transport family members, and 45% reportedly flew privately to a second home.

Talking about the European market, private jets are mostly used for intra-continental flights. As per the aviation website Airport Technology, some of the preferred routes for such flights are spread across Switzerland, Italy, the UK and France.

Currently, the UK and France are the biggest polluters, producing 19.2% and 16.5% of CO2 emissions respectively, and these two nations outmatch the 20 other European countries. France in particular is one of Europe’s main hubs for private jets. One-tenth of all flights that were departing from France in 2019 were private jets and 80% of those flights travelled within Europe. Flights produce greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from burning fuel and this contributes to global warming.

While emissions from civil aviation are reportedly known as significantly worse than any other mode of transportation, in terms of per kilometre travelled, the ratio varies depending on size, occupancy levels and efficiency. Private jets have a track record of producing more emissions per passenger than commercial flights.

For example, Cessna Citation XLS burns 189 gallons (857 litres) of aviation fuel an hour on average. For a journey of two hours and 45 minutes, this private jetliner will be requiring 2,356 litres of aviation fuel, which is a lot, if seen from the pollution angle.

The United Kingdom Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in 2021 stated that 2.52kg of carbon dioxide was emitted for every litre of aviation turbine fuel burned. So mathematically, a two hours and 45 minutes journey by Cessna Citation XLS will produce 5.9 tonnes of CO2. BEIS also recommended that to “capture the maximum climate impact” of flights, CO2 emissions figures should be multiplied by 1.9 to reflect the effect of non-CO2 emissions released by planes at high altitudes, which, as per the scientists, increases the global warming effect.

Therefore, the total emissions for the particular Cessna flight would be 11.3 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, and since the private jet carries nine passengers, each of them would be responsible for 1.2 tonnes on their journey.

In 2021, during an interaction with BBC, Debbie Hopkins, an expert in decarbonising transport at University of Oxford, said, “A huge amount of fuel is used during takeoff and landing of a plane, no matter how many people you have on board. So an already polluting mode of transport (commercial aviation) becomes even worse (with private jets).”

SAF is the way forward

The 21st-century aviation is standing at a crossroads. On the one hand, the stakeholders are going from biofuels to battery-powered aircraft. Then we have the opposition to private jets deservedly reaching a new level as environmental activists are lobbying for stricter regulations/outright bans.

However, one also cannot overlook European Business Aviation Association’s concerns against a drastic regulatory move, as the private jet sector employs a good number of professionals and contribute significantly to Europe’s GDP.

One needs to find a middle path. SAF and battery-powered jets can be that option, as they can be deployed for short-haul flights on a pilot basis.

Kennedy Ricci, founder of 4Air, which advises companies on making their operations more sustainable, told Robb Report, “We’re less than 5% of where we need to be by 2050.”

4Air’s clients use verified carbon offsets, often considered controversial, due to its practice of mitigating environmental impact by investing in carbon-reduction programs elsewhere. These clients have also transitioned to sustainable aviation fuel.

There are no hard-and-fast patterns to buy in, said Ricci, who also remarked that corporate flight departments, including those of Microsoft and American Express, align SAF purchasing to carbon-reduction goals while individual aircraft owners tend to set higher offset targets.

“But we’ve also seen individuals willing to purchase higher percentages of SAF,” he said, while adding, “Geography can also be an influence, with some operators in Europe willing to start at higher commitment levels.”

Robb Report also mentioned London-headquartered jet-charter broker Victor, which stopped its carbon-offsetting program at the 2022 end to focus on SAF.

While aviation stakeholders have gone into top gear, in terms of investing in SAF and other sustainable practices, there is a need of expanding refineries and airport distribution networks to be expanded well beyond current infrastructure.

Considering US business jets consumed about 12% of the 60 million gallons of blended SAF in 2022, “We punched above our weight,” AvFuel’s Keith Sawyer said.

You have an independent, non-profit organisation named Lindbergh Foundation introducing prizes and cash rewards for decarbonizing aviation and this can augur well for those high net worth individuals, those who primarily take private jets for commuting, as getting recognized for adopting sustainable aviation practices will boost their brand values.

“It’s a complicated issue of enormous scale. But a $25 million incentive, and even smaller prizes, will prompt companies to solve friction points with workable results,” Lindbergh Foundation remarked.

The fast-emerging aircraft type called Electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL), which analysts anticipate being mainstream by 2035 and is seeing investments from the aviation giants, could also aid the ultra-rich. Currently, some 375 designs of this electric rotorcraft are under development.

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