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The private jet business is bigger than you think

A private jet on the tarmac at Friedman Memorial Airport during the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Idaho back in July. The world's most wealthy and powerful business people from the media, finance, and technology converge at the conference every year.

Private jet use has become normalized in recent decades . Above, a private jet in Sun Valley, Idaho, last month. Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

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Pop star Taylor Swift is receiving backlash after she landed on top of a list of biggest celebrity carbon dioxide polluters last week. Digital marketing agency Yard said in its report that her private jet has an average flight time of 80 minutes and her carbon emissions total almost 8,300 tons so far this year. 

In response to the controversy surrounding the list, a Swift spokesperson told Rolling Stone that her jet “is loaned out regularly to other individuals” and “to attribute most or all of these trips to her is blatantly incorrect.” 

On its website, Yard said that while it can’t determine whether the celebrities were on all the flights, “the purpose of this study is to highlight the damaging impact of private jet usage.” 

The data was taken from the Twitter account @CelebJets, which chronicles the flight behaviors of the rich and famous; @CelebJets, in turn, takes its data from the flight-tracking service ADS-B Exchange, run by aviation enthusiasts who pool flight data. 

@CelebJets notes not just how many tons of carbon emissions were released, but where these celebs are traveling and the cost of that fuel. Last month, @CelebJets highlighted a 17-minute flight taken on Kylie Jenner’s private jet, which would have likely taken more than 40 minutes by car. 

Jenner received backlash for the trip, compounded by a photo she posted on Instagram where she’s posing with boyfriend Travis Scott between two private jets. “you wanna take mine or yours?” read the caption. 

“kylie jenner is out here taking 3 minute flights with her private jet but i’m the one who has to use paper straws,” said one Twitter user. 

It’s not just celebrities who are chartering private jets — executives at major companies like Google and Apple also use them to reach their destinations, said Puneet Dwivedi, an associate professor of sustainability sciences at the University of Georgia.   

Despite the many ways air travel contributes to the climate crisis and rising awareness about climate change, the private jet industry is booming. There were 3.3 million business jet flights in the 2021 calendar year, up 7% from 2019, according to data from WingX Advance.

We have a long road ahead to reducing emissions: A report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that the world will have to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 to prevent temperatures from rising beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius. 

The aviation sector accounts for 2.4% of total carbon emissions. The most frequent fliers — about 1% of people — are likely responsible for more than half of these emissions, according to a study published in the journal Global Environmental Change. 

In another study, researchers Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros from Indiana University quantified the carbon footprints of the superrich, looking at their emissions across transportation, yachts and housing. 

They found that 20 billionaires, throughout 2018, emitted a total of almost 55,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from their transportation alone. These 20 people each emitted an average of about 8,190 tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, compared to all U.S. residents, who each emitted roughly 15 tons of carbon dioxide during the same period.  

“While many billionaires have taken pro-environmental actions in their personal lives or their corporate connections or donate money to climate-change organizations and purchase carbon offsets, none of these actions actually ‘cancels out’ their total emissions,’” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. 

Private jet use has become normalized in recent decades, said Maurie Cohen, a professor of sustainability studies at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. While accounts like @CelebJets are now raising awareness about private plane use, he said it’s more common than people realize. 

“Private aircraft aren’t utilizing the same kinds of commercial facilities that we are. They tend to use secondary and tertiary airports, so you never see the planes, unless there’s one of these mass events like Davos, or some big tech industry event taking place,” Cohen said.

Service providers have long aimed to provide “super-luxury air travel” that goes beyond business class or first class, Cohen noted. 

He explained that the private jet business takes different forms: You can now buy equity in aircraft through companies like NetJets and Flexjet, or buy vouchers that grant you access to a certain amount of flights on these planes. Cohen said he doesn’t see signs that private jet use will slow down. 

Dwivedi of the University of Georgia said there may be a silver lining in the form of sustainable aviation fuels, or SAFs, which are made of feedstocks and serve as an alternative to the fossil fuels that traditionally power aircraft. If private jet users help purchase SAFs, that could help expand the market for it. That’s because if supply increases, that could eventually drive down the price, he explained. 

Some companies are already getting started. Earlier this month, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft and the carbon transformation company Twelve announced they would work together to “advance production” of SAFs.  

But there are challenges associated with producing the fuel because growing the crops used for biofuels can harm the environment

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