For years, hundreds of private jets have taken elites to and from Davos as it hosts the World Economic Forum. This year, when private jets leave Davos rich people will have the option to do the bare minimum: they can purchase "sustainable aviation fuel" (SAF) at Zurich airport.
The option is akin to putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. Private jets are one of the best ways to pollute—some estimates say private jets produce at least 10 times the amount of carbon per passenger, while SAF promises to reduce a private jet’s emissions by a meager 18 percent. For years, these sorts of sustainability half-measures have been peddled by the super-rich who refuse to give up their toys.
To take just one recent example: in 2009, we were fed lines about how carbon-neutral flights would fix the problem of private jet pollution. Since then, private jet ownership has soared and demand has skyrocketed, leading to more emissions. This, combined with the fact that commercial air travel’s emissions have grown at rates “worse than anyone expected,'' has fueled a flight-shaming movement that elites are desperate to quell.
In its earlier iterations, flight-shaming simply amounted to choosing or pressuring others to choose travel alternatives. Now, the European Union is looking to end long-standing tax exemptions for jet fuel as part of a move to curb carbon emissions and promote cleaner forms of energy. Things could get even more precarious for private jet owners and passengers if taxes are applied to the jets themselves—on an identical route and despite having identical needs, private jets are taxed 40 times less than commercial jets.
The World Economic Forum has actually become obsessed with fighting back against flight shaming using this idea that SAF can make flying more sustainable. We should, of course, move toward more sustainable fuels, but WEF seems to want to “cultivate demand” for SAF by making the ultra-rich feel slightly better about their awful habits. WEF is promising to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but as Greta Thunberg laid out at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday: real-zero, not net-zero emissions, should be the goal because net-zero is meaningless and often used to kick the ball to a future date.
Private jets should be banned, not flown with green fuel. There is little, if any, justification for their existence. Sure, the aviation industry only contributes 2 percent of global CO2 emissions. And yet, private jets have a disproportionate effect on the rest of us. Ignore their larger carbon footprint per person: private jet owners and passengers have demanded tax exemptions that have made air travel cheaper than it should be, encouraged more travel by the rest of us on commercial jets, and contributed to the accelerated growth of air travel, all while demanding we change our lifestyles while their decisions are influencing and distorting our behaviors.
We should ban private jets because they represent "the nadir of carbon inequality" where the richest among us pollute the most then pass on the costs to the rest of us whether it's in a degraded ecology, poor health outcomes, or political capture all to preserve their toys. We should ban private jets because they're an incredibly inefficient way to travel. But most importantly, we should ban private jets because we need to start taking concrete steps—it would be a small step, but already more than the empty rhetoric and promises that kept being thrown around.