Private jets’ season or the hypocrisy festival in Davos

January nears its end, the economic and political leaders meet in Davos and private jets get an new round of attention. Hypocrisy is getting noticed. Are perceptions already shifting?

BanPivateJets.org went online in September last year. What happened since?

2019 – New voices asking to #BanPrivateJets

The year started with a copiously commented blogpost wondering about why private jets were not yet outlawed. September brought an article asking for the ban on a popular US leftist magazine. At that point I convinced myself that the idea was viable and launched this site.

Early in November, as the electoral campaign for the UK general election had just begun, the Labour Party promised to consider banning fossil-fueled private jets by 2025 if they won. Unfortunately that did not happen. The idea, based on a report by the think thank Common Wealth and the campaign group A free ride, is to incentivize the development of electric aircrafts.

Two weeks later, a Swiss chapter of Extinction Rebellion blocked the private-jet terminal of Geneva airport. Denouncing private jets as an absurd mode of transport they made the news around the world.

By coincidence, on the same day the youth section of the Swiss Green Party had delegates’ assembly. There they decided to include banning private jets in their party platform.

In December, Stay Grounded published the report Degrowth of Aviation: Reducing air travel in a just way, which is as good as its title suggests. The eight key messages they highlight there are really to the point. This is why I wanted to recommend it here.

Before the year ended, three media outlets asked whether private jets should be banned to mitigate climate change. Those were Forbes, CapX and Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. None known for their radical environmentalism.

Davos, the global leaders’ hypocrisy festival

As the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos approached, talk about private jets increased. Different outlets noticed that many guests traveled to the WEF by private jets and helicopter and contrasted it to the declarations on climate change made there. However, mostly they did not openly call out the hypocrisy. becomesAs the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos approached, talk about private jets increased. Different outlets noticed that many guests traveled to the WEF by private jets and helicopter and contrasted it to the declarations on climate change made there. However, mostly they did not openly call out the hypocrisy.

Business insider had for instance a widely circulated article titled: Davos says it is focusing on the climate crisis, but its billionaires and world leaders are still arriving on private jets. UK’s Mail Online went personal on their old prince. German-language newspapers joined in.

On the first day of the WEF, the international unit of the Swiss Broadcast Corporation published an opinion article by yours truly, available in eight languages.

At this point, the Zurich airport tried to push back on this narrative by plugging their so-called sustainable aviation fuel. This is a blend of kerosene with up to 30% bio-fuel. Using it means emitting about 18% less CO₂ over the entire value chain. Industry’s promotional material does not say anything about the other climate effects by aviation.

This a-little-less polluting fuel is just another attempt at assuaging consciences by selling indulgences. Switching from private jets to commercial and from helicopter to train means at least 75% less CO₂ if not much more. Fortunately, reporting has been skeptical. Bloomberg put quotes around the “greener” label. Vice outright reminded the readers that the solution to private jets is banning them.

Damaging the credibility of serious climate activists

As I wrote in my last essay, this hypocrisy has a huge societal impact. The self-styled global leaders ostensibly gather to discuss solutions to climate change. Then, first, they are unable to produce any concrete result in terms of state or corporate policy. Second, they make no meaningful effort to reduce their personal greenhouse gas emissions. In practice, they are telling the public that, contrary to their stated beliefs, they do not think that climate change poses a threat to humanity. Or that they do not care.

While journalists only timidly notice this hypocrisy and fail to report on its broader consequences, right wing figures have a field day. Their followers on social media rejoice at seeing confirmation that climate change must be a hoax. They smear serious climate activists by associating them with the hypocritical guests of the WEF.

Shut up or give up your private jets

This sabotages political efforts directed at the radical changes needed to mitigate climate change. This is murderous and unacceptable. There are only two solutions. Either the hypocritical leaders shut up about climate change and admit that they oppose effective mitigation policies or their private jets have to stay grounded, forever.

Sadly, those traveling to the WEF in the most polluting way seem unable to see their nefarious impact on environment and public discourse. Thus, civil society has to step up and ground the jets and helicopters for them.

Credits for the photo with the helicopters (featured image, symbolic): Kecko, CC BY 2.0, cropped, via flickr.

Why do we ignore the imminent climate catastrophes?

Bush fires

Climate change deniers, advocates of moderate responses to the climate crisis, people minding their own business, optimists: most people are not facing the urgent threat presented by climate catastrophes, in spite of scientific proof. Maybe because no leader is acting like humanity is facing an emergency?

The Australia fires of the last months could be the ultimate wake up call for immediate action. The unprecedented intensity and length of this fire season are the consequence of climate change. Scientist predicted this kind of events well in advance. Now, the same science is predicting the collapse of humanity. The longer the world economy continues doing business as usual the sooner this happens.

Most people will witness dramatic effects of climate change within their lifetime. These include rising seas, desertification and extraordinary weather events such as droughts, floods, storms and hurricanes. They will destroy the livelihoods of large swaths of the human population. Forced migration will explode.

Extremely dry soil showing cracks, almost no vegetation.
Climate change induced degradation of land is nothing new. Altai, Russia, 2010 (Wikimedia commons, public domain).

In 2019 media coverage on climate change and social mobilization reached new heights, particularly in Europe. Taking all of this into account, everybody fortunate enough to be able to care about the next decades should be reevaluating their political preferences, societal values and consumption patterns.

Ignoring the emergency and not really acting

Personally, I could not say that I already see actual change coming. Climate change denial is alive and well. Most policies discussed in parliaments would represent only drops in the bucket. Barely anybody is panicking, in spite of Greta Thunberg’s widely circulated call to do so. Many people conscious of the urgency of the climate crisis still place excessive optimism in technological progress.

The UN Climate Change Conference in December 2019 failed again. The proposals currently discussed are very similar to those en vogue at the time of the Kyoto Protocol. Barely anyone in the public sphere seems to notice that. The advocates of these proposals never bother explaining why they expect the same approaches to be more effective this time.

Even the celebrated Paris agreement in practice only requires states to set their own goals. And talk about it.

For those who fly, flying less is likely the most powerful lever to reduce negative impact on climate change. Renouncing to flying is also very often very easy. However no big reduction in flying has happened. Aviation continues to grow.

Big passenger airplane with four engines and an upper deck.
Lifting and keeping a Boeing 747-400 in the air, weighing up to 390 metric tons, takes a lot of energy (Public domain).

Even in my progressive bubble, I barely see people changing their consumption patterns or just realizing that doom is approaching. Are we all, while abstractly believing in climate change, ignoring the climate catastrophes upon us?

Are climate catastrophes really upon us?

The first time I learned about climate change I was not yet ten years old. Since then, I had the opportunity to learn a fair share of natural science and mathematics. But would I believe that climate change is real, man-made and an imminent threat to humanity without this education? Without any understanding of physics, I would look around at other people to inform my own beliefs.

Are leaders acting on the imminent threat of climate catastrophes?

I see many celebrities, politicians, philanthropists or people otherwise rich, famous or powerful advocating for action on climate change. Some of them talk a lot about it. They donate money, but stay rich. They go to conferences on climate change, but still travel there by airplane. They discuss and negotiate goals for 2050, but last year and this year nothing changes. Did I see any of them personally renounce to something because of climate change? Did any corporation, government or party made steps towards climate protection beyond what the public, the customers or their constituents were asking for? If yes, I did not notice.

Banner in a protest displaying the text "Business as usual".
Carbon reduction schemes until now have mostly been business as usual. Protest in Melbourne, June, 2009 (John Englart, CC BY-SA 2.0, cropped, via flickr).

What is the only logical interpretation of this state of affairs? Climate change cannot be that big of a threat. It mus be a problem like many others. Politics, markets and scientists will soon figure it out. No radical change needed.

It is usual to assume that the famous, the rich and the powerful attained their status because of some special ability. If climate catastrophes were upon us, they would be actually doing something about it. Something new that has not been tried before. Something that may imply costs or sacrifices. They would be doing it now at the latest, since Australia just delivered the proof of the imminence and the size of the threat.

Leaders must send strong signals immediately

Of course there are many explanations for the lack of awareness about the threats posed by climate catastrophes. It is also a matter of cognitive dissonance. In any case, seeing the famous, the rich and the powerful not doing anything of consequence does help people reassure themselves.

Banning private jets could abruptly break this spell. The media are saturated by declarations of intent, virtue signalling and generally a lot of noise. This is a curtain that only an extremely unusual piece of news can pierce. Banning private jets can be that strong signal that does not go unheard. The message would be loud and clear. Something huge must be happening, even the rich and the powerful have to make sacrifices.

Banning private jets would do much more convincing about the imminence of climate catastrophes that any scientific publication could. A theoretical and scientific proof cannot be accessible and convincing to all. Conversely, passing a ban of private jets would be a practical and social proof. Most people have enough implicit notions of political economy to understand that, usually, societies cannot take away something from the kind of people that fly private jets. That is, unless there is a huge imminent threat.

In a way, wartime economy works by the same principle. In countries facing total war, the exceptional circumstances allow government to easily increase control over their market economies.

Minding climate justice makes climate advocates credible

Of course, banning private jets is not the only big action that could convince skeptics and uninterested. Many weak signals could also, in their sum, gradually achieve the same effect.

For people under public scrutiny there are many ways to show by their actions that they actually believe that climate change is an extraordinary threat. But there has to be something unusual. They have to convey the idea that renouncing to some personal privilege is on the table. And it is very important that this starts to happen.

When people fly by private jet to conferences on climate change they signal that it cannot be that big of a deal. Of course, rationally one sees that a single trip is negligible in the big scheme of things. However, it is legitimate to wonder why would politician X, celebrity Y or billionaire Z keep flying private jets, if they actually believed that climate change is a big threat. Even if that sounds like a talking point of climate change deniers.

The wisdom of the public

An expensive sports car in the foreground with a private jet in the background.
If this is your lifestyle, you cannot convince the public that climate change is an imminent threat (Hush hush, CC BY 2.0, via flickr).

Everybody knows that owning and using a private jet pollutes more than having a car and a long commute. Similarly, it is clear that is easier for a private jet user to switch to a first class seat in commercial flights, than for an underpaid worker with a long commute to cope with a sudden gas tax increase. Common sense of fairness asks that frequent flyers tone down their flying before people struggling to make ends meet are hit by further hardship.

This sense of fairness is compatible with the idea of climate justice. By which I mean recognizing that some people profited from the industrialization that caused climate change more than other. Recognizing that some people are in a better position to start reducing their negative impact on climate very soon.

Any climate change advocate should lead by example and act according to this sense of fairness. That would show that they are moved by an altruistic and genuine concern for the fate of humanity. That they are not on a quest for personal satisfaction or self aggrandizing.

A hopeful note

While I was writing this piece, the climate youth targeted Roger Federer with a social media action. The Swiss tennis player is a brand ambassador for Credit Suisse, a Bank particularly active financing fossil fuel industries. Climate activists asked him to urge Credit Suisse to divest from fossil fuels or cut ties with the bank.

Social media visual with the text "Dear Roger, we need you to become a climate champion. Urge Credit Suisse to divest from fossil fuels."
One of the images shared on Twitter under #RogerWakeUpNow.

While he obviously did not criticize the bank, he declared that he takes the issue very seriously and would talk with his sponsors about it. He is a discrete Swiss personality and an athlete payed for goodwill without critical notes. Thus, this is a considerable departure from business as usual. I want to believe that this is one of those small actions that send a signal: climate change is a big deal.

We urgently need more of this.

Credits for the bush fire photo (featured image, symbolic): 80 trading 24, CC BY-SA 3.0, cropped, via Wikimedia.

Ora di vietare i jet privati?

Lugano Airport View

I jet privati hanno un impatto ambientale sproporzionato. Per avere giustizia climatica, i loro utenti, i ricchissimi, devono essere i primi a ridurre il loro consumo. Un divieto è la misura immediata con le maggiori riduzioni di CO₂ socialmente accettabili.

La lotta contro il cambiamento climatico è così urgente che qualsiasi misura attuabile immediatamente che riduca le emissioni di gas a effetto serra è benvenuta. In Svizzera, l’aviazione è responsabile di circa 1/5 delle emissioni in questione. Ovvio quindi occuparsi prima di coloro che volano frequentemente e che di consequenza inquinano maggiormente l’ambiente. Infatti, su una data tratta, chi vola in un jet privato è responsabile per una quantità di CO₂ da 5 a 20 volte superiore rispetto ai passeggeri degli aerei di linea.

Il divieto dei jet privati riguarda solo un numero infimo di persone comunque benestanti, che dovrebbero soltanto cambiare ai voli di linea. Ciò si traduce in una riduzione immediata delle emissioni. Il comfort diminuito motiva anche a volare meno spesso. Per i ricchi questi incentivi non monetari sono molto più efficaci che le tasse.

L’analisi costi-benefici non può essere altrettanto favorevole per nessun’altra misura. Le pochissime persone colpite sarebbero scarsamente meno mobili di prima (i tempi di viaggio si allungherebbero molto di più se dovessero passare ad automobili, treni o navi). In compenso ci sono 20 milioni di tonnellate di CO₂ emesse globalmente all’anno da jet privati. Inoltre, l’aviazione, in particolare il traffico di jet privati, è uno dei settori le cui emissioni di gas a effetto serra crescono più in fretta.

Da un punto di vista etico, i proprietari di jet privati sono il bersaglio ideale. Giustizia climatica significa che la politica climatica tiene conto di chi ha tratto i maggiori benefici dalle emissioni accumulate storicamente che causano il cambiamento climatico. Ciò vale non solo a livello globale, ma anche a livello nazionale. I più ricchi sono quelli che hanno beneficiato maggiormente della crescita economica e che dovrebbero quindi dare il massimo contributo alla lotta contro il cambiamento climatico.

Il divieto dei jet privati è molto pragmatico. Altre misure immediate di analoga efficacia (ad esempio il divieto dei SUV o un forte aumento dei prezzi della carne, del riscaldamento o della circolazione stradale) richiederebbero una riduzione nei consumi o costosi adeguamenti nella vita quotidiana di molte più persone. Quindi si anticipa una minore opposizione da parte della popolazione.

Ciò che è molto più importante, tuttavia, è l’effetto del messaggio politico: come può la politica comunicare al meglio alla popolazione, non sempre ben informata, che il cambiamento climatico è una questione di estrema gravità? Dimostrando che anche i più influenti e i più ricchi devono sacrificare qualcosa! In più, questo invalida la critica populista di destra secondo cui la politica climatica è una scusa per la redistribuzione dalla gente comune alle élite urbane. Inoltre, la richiesta di vietare i jet privati fornisce un contrasto nei confronti dei famosi che si esprimono a favore del clima ma volano su jet privati.

Il divieto dei jet privati colma inoltre lacune ingiustificate nella legge sul CO₂ attualmente discussa in Svizzera e nel sistema globale di compensazione del CO₂ per il traffico aereo, detto CORSIA, che si trova in preparazione. Inoltre, esistono numerose scappatoie fiscali per i proprietari di jet privati che non sono facili da eliminare.

Sull’immagine

L’aeroporto di Lugano fatica a trovare passeggeri per voli di linea. Prossimamente si ritroverà soltanto con jet privati. Questi emettono molti più gas a effetto serra per passeggero. Il fattore esatto varia a seconda dei velivoli specifici che si confrontano. In più, i jet privati raramente volano senza posti liberi e spesso pure vuoti.

Un nuovo studio fa questa stima: in media, un viaggio in un jet privato in Europa emette 10 volte più gas serra rispetto alla stessa tratta nella classe turistica di un aereo di linea, e 150 volte di più che con il treno ad alta velocità.

C’è anche una versione in tedesco di questo testo (senza i riferimenti a Lugano).

Crediti immagine: Chris j wood [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Wieso Privatjets verbieten?

Privatjets belasten die Umwelt überproportional. Deren Nutzer, die Allerreichsten, müssen aus Klimagerechtigkeit am meisten und als Erste ihren Konsum reduzieren. Ein Verbot ist die Sofortmassnahme mit den grössten sozialverträglichen CO₂-Reduktionen.

Den Klimawandel zu bekämpfen ist so dringend, dass jede sofort umsetzbare Massnahme, die Treibhausgasemissionen reduziert, willkommen ist. In der Schweiz ist die Luftfahrt für etwa 1/5 des menschengemachten Klimaeffekts verantwortlich. Es ist naheliegend, bei der Vielfliegerei anzusetzen, und zwar bei den Reisenden, die am meisten die Umwelt belasten. Wer auf einem Privatjet unterwegs ist, verursacht auf einer gegebenen Strecke 5 bis 20 mal so viel CO₂, wie die Passagiere auf Linienflugzeugen.

Ein Verbot von Privatjets betrifft nur eine Kleinstmenge von ohnehin gut situierten Menschen, die nur auf Linienflugzeuge umsteigen müssten. Das bringt unmittelbar Reduktionen in Emissionen. Die verminderte Bequemlichkeit schafft auch Anreize, weniger oft zu fliegen. Diese nicht-monetären Anreize sind bei schwer reichen Menschen viel wirksamer als Abgaben.

Die Kostennutzenanalyse kann bei keiner anderen Massnahme so günstig ausfallen. Die wenigen betroffenen Menschen sind beinahe so mobil als früher (die Reisezeiten würden sich bei einem Umstieg auf Auto/Bahn/Schifffahrt viel mehr verlängern). Demgegenüber stehen weltweit mehr als 20 Millionen Tonnen von CO₂, welche die Privatjets jährlich ausstossen (Seite 7). Zudem ist die Luftfahrt, insbesondere die Privatjetbranche, eine der Sektoren, deren Emissionen am schnellsten zunehmen.

Aus ethischer Sicht ist es ideal, die Privatjetbesitzer in die Pflicht zu nehmen. Klimagerechtigkeit bedeutet nämlich, dass die Klimapolitik berücksichtigt, wer am meisten von den historisch kumulierten Emissionen profitiert hat, die den Klimawandel verursachen. Das gilt nicht nur auf globaler Ebene, auch innerhalb der Länder. Die Reichsten sind diejenigen, die am meisten vom Wirtschaftswachstum profitiert haben, und sollen daher die grössten Beiträge leisten, den Klimawandel zu bekämpfen.

Privatjets zu verbieten, ist sehr pragmatisch. Andere ähnlich wirksame Sofortmassnahmen (z. B. ein SUV-Verbot oder grosse Preisanstiege für Fleisch, Heizung oder Autofahren) würden kostspielige Anpassungen im Alltag oder Konsumverzicht von viel mehr Menschen verlangen. Daher ist mit weniger Widerstand durch die Bevölkerung zu rechnen.

Viel wichtiger ist jedoch die politische Signalwirkung: Wie kann die Politik der nicht immer gut informierten Bevölkerung am besten kommunizieren, dass Klimawandel eine sehr ernsthafte Angelegenheit ist? Indem man zeigt, dass sogar die Mächtigsten und die Reichsten etwas opfern müssen. Vor allem entkräftet ein Privatjet-Verbot die rechtspopulistische Kritik, wonach Klimapolitik eine Ausrede für Umverteilung von den einfachen Menschen an die urbanen Eliten sei. Darüber hinaus liefert die Forderung, Privatjets zu verbieten, ein Gegenbild zu den Prominenten, die sich für das Klima aussprechen und gleichzeitig Privatjets verwenden.

Ein Verbot von Privatjets schliesst auch ungerechtfertigte Lücken in dem momentan in der Schweiz diskutierten CO₂-Gesetz, sowie in dem globalen CO₂-Kompensations-System für den Luftverkehr CORSIA, das sich in Vorbereitung befindet. Zudem bestehen zahlreiche Steuerschlupflöcher für Privatjetbesitzer, die nicht einfach zu schliessen sind.

Zum Bild

Wahrscheinlich mag Pingu, dessen Iglu der Klimawandel gefährdet, lieber grosse Flugzeuge als kleine Jets, denn erstere emittieren viel weniger pro Passagier. Der genaue Faktor variiert, je nachdem welche spezifischen Flugzeuge man vergleicht. Dazu kommt, dass Privatjets selten ohne freie Sitze fliegen und oft sogar ganz leer.

Eine neue Studie macht diese Schätzung: Im Durchschnitt emittiert eine Reise mit Privatjet innerhalb Europas 10 Mal mehr Treibhausgase als die gleiche Reise in der Touristenklasse eines Linienflugzeuges, und 150 Mal mehr als mit dem Schnellzug.

Es gibt auch eine Version auf Italienisch dieses Textes (aber ohne Pingu).

Das Bild der überdimensionierten Pingu-Figur vor der Boeing 747-237, HB-IGG “Ticino”, in Zürich-Kloten gehört der ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz / Fotograf: Swissair / LBS_SR04-028401 / CC BY-SA 4.0.

First steps

symbolic jet image

This site is under construction but will hopefully soon have own content on #BanPrivateJets and related topics. In the meantime, here is a sample of articles on the issue:

  • This post by Lambert Strether on the Blog Naked Capitalism makes the obvious case for the ban lingering longer on the point of view of the rich
  • But also The Economist sees the absurdity of private jets, more or less

The Economist does indeed recognize that tax breaks on horribly polluting private jets are outrageous. However, I say, we can’t wait for international action on tax avoidance to fix the Isle of Man-loophole and the rest. It is much easier and effective to #BanPrivateJets now.

Follow BanPrivateJets.org on Twitter to stay tuned.