Over the weekend, professional famous person Kylie Jenner was ridiculed on the internet for posting about a private flight in the Los Angeles area between two airports 40 miles apart. The flight took approximately 17 minutes and emitted about one ton of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent of driving a Chevy Suburban for 1,600 miles.
Lots of people on the internet got angry about it and posted about banning private jets, a service undeniably convenient and nice for rich people but one with practical and luxurious alternatives that nevertheless emit far less harmful gasses.
But if these angry people wanted to do more than simply post about it, they may have found Mario Huber’s website. And not much else.
In September 2019, Huber, then a 31 year old unemployed government worker living in Switzerland, saw an article published in the leftist magazine Jacobin written by a member of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America. The headline was “Ban Private Jets.” “I was like ‘yes, of course we should,’” Huber recounted to Motherboard. He noticed nobody had a website for such a movement, or seemed to follow through on it in any meaningful way. In a few years, he figured, something like banprivatejets.org could be a thing. So he bought the domain.
He didn’t expect it to become a massive social movement. After all, private jets are considered a legitimate service. But he hoped that getting people to simply talk about the idea would reveal how little is being asked of the richest people in the world who have the largest impact on the climate.
But it isn’t just an Overton Window-shifting exercise. Huber also very much wants to ban private jets.
“The most privileged people should be the ones who start sacrificing first,” Huber told Motherboard. “It’s unfair to ask the poorest people to give up polluting activities first if the richest don’t have to give up anything.”
People are right to criticize Jenner for her “visible lack of sincere concern for the effects of her flying,” Huber said, although he lamented that much of the vitriol veered towards abuse as it so often does on the internet. He also wondered why Jenner was such a focal point for criticism while Bill Gates, for example, owns four private jets and emitted 1,629 tons of CO2 from 356 private flight hours in 2017 while writing a book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. “This might say something about prejudice and respectability,” Huber said.
The argument in favor of banning private jets is a simple one. If you were trying, for whatever reason, to have as large of a carbon footprint as possible, the first thing you would do is fly in a private plane. You would especially do so for very short flights, because taking off is the most energy-intensive part of any flight. A common model of a private plane burns 226 gallons of jet fuel an hour on average. And jet fuel—which is typically not taxed—emits more toxic gasses than gasoline.
Not only is flying in a private plane just about the worst thing one can do for the planet, it is also one of the habits with the easiest substitutes. Private jets emit approximately seven times as much greenhouse gasses as a business class ticket on a commercial airliner, 10 times as much as an economy seat, and some 150 times more than an electric train journey. Although “ban private jets” sounds like a radical argument, it is really quite modest, since rich people would still have any number of ultra-luxurious alternatives at their disposal and plenty of money to hire security guards to ensure the privacy they say flying private ensures.
Huber contrasts the relative anonymity of the “ban private jets” movement—such as it is—with the widespread press coverage of flight shaming, which seeks to make people feel bad for flying and the resultant emissions, as “blind on the social side of the issues.” The common approaches to curtailing commercial flying, such as taxing flights more, will hurt the people who rarely more than the wealthy who can already afford to fly often. It’s an issue sensitive to him personally, since his mother is Colombian but lives in Europe. The only way she can realistically see her family is to fly. He doesn’t understand why people like her are being nudged to fly less or not at all while the most polluting people in the world aren’t even being urged to travel commercially.
To get the movement off the ground—so to speak—Huber started going to campaign meetings for politicians in and around his home city of Bern. He urged politicians to seek a ban on private planes. Huber told Motherboard he’d get one of two reactions: Either they weren’t in favor because it is too tiny a fraction of overall emissions to bother with, or they are in favor but won’t waste any time on it because it’s too tiny of a fraction of overall emissions to bother with. (Aviation accounts for about two percent of human-caused CO2 emissions, and about 12 percent of emissions from the transportation sector, according to an air transport industry group. But its total climate impact, including non-CO2 gasses and the fact they are emitted directly into the atmosphere, means the raw CO2 emissions figure understates the climate impact of the airline industry.)
It is no mystery to Huber why banning private jets hasn’t caught on as a major political issue (in a rare example of an actual political party adding it to their plank, the UK’s Labour party mentioned it in 2019 but lost the election). He’s a political scientist by trade and all too aware of the fact that politicians rely on people who fly in private jets to fund their campaigns. In many countries, the politicians are the ones who fly in private jets themselves. In other words, banning private jets would amount to a collective action by the most powerful people in the world to reject one of the biggest perks of being rich.
Still, Huber says the impracticality of it happening misses the point. To him, arguing for the banishment of private jets is a powerful symbolic issue, something the political Right has already figured out. Huber has a Google Alert set up for the subject, and he says virtually every week some right wing media outlet blasts a supposed climate advocate for flying in a private jet. Just this week, Fox News has gone after noted wealthy man who is very concerned about climate change John Kerry, calculating his family’s private jet has emitted 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide since Biden took office and he was made a “Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.” Nancy Pelosi and Bill Gates are also frequent targets. And while the stories have obvious political motivations behind them, the criticism is also justified. By finding a quote from one of them about how climate change is an “existential” threat to humanity followed by a quick search of a plane tail number on a flight tracker website, the articles practically write themselves.
“[The Right] are talking about private jets all the time and they are using it as proof climate change is not a big deal,” Huber said. “By pointing at the hypocrisy of some alleged climate advocates, they are instrumentalizing it.” He says it’s time for the political center-Left and the wealthy—and to any degree those two groups overlap—who are concerned about climate change to do the same. “They should stop pretending it is fine to talk all the time about climate change but not do anything different. Gain credibility by not ignoring this issue.”