The climate crisis is putting private jet users on the defensive


On London’s Park Lane there is a private jet showroom.

You can relax in a section of the cabin taken from an executive airliner, complete with cocoa-cream leather sofas and the plushest of swivel armchairs.

Steve Varsano, founder of The Jet Business, runs me through my brand options if I have an appetite for luxury and at least £10m to spare: the Citation, Gulfstream or Embraer. But he disputes my description.

“I’m allergic to the word luxury because I think corporate aircraft are a business tool. It’s a time machine. 70% of all the passengers that occupy corporate jets are middle management. So it’s really a utility. It’s transportation.”

This week, in the hotel right next door, hundreds of people are gathering to get more money into this exclusive world and more people flying on private jets.

Steve Varsano speaks to Sky’s Tom Heap

The two-day event is called Corporate Jet Investor 2024 and they invited the Sky News Climate Show to join them.

It is unusual and fascinating to be among hundreds of people who want more of us to step aboard a highly polluting form of transport.

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For every passenger mile, on average, taking a private jet results in 10-14 times the greenhouse gas emissions than a scheduled commercial flight.

“Apart from being an astronaut going up in a rocket, there is no way for one person’s action to create so much carbon so quickly,” says Todd Smith, former pilot and founder of Safe Landing which campaigns for greener flying, a just transition for aviation workers and a ban on private jets.

“Private jet use represents the pinnacle of injustice, given that flying is the fastest way to fry the planet.”

It’s this combination of emissions and exclusivity which makes private jet passengers a very popular target. Anyone who steps aboard – Rishi Sunak, King Charles, Bill Gates, Taylor Swift – stands accused of climate crimes and, if they’ve ever uttered a syllable of concern about global warming, hypocrisy too.

But how big is the sector? There are an estimated 22,000 private jets in the world, with 70% of those being in America. In Europe, the UK is the biggest player. The total number of jets has more than doubled since the year 2000.

Every man and woman I spoke to at the conference said they cared about climate change and they have got a plan to reach net zero by 2050.

Their justification rests on three main pillars. Private jets are an essential tool for cash-rich but time-poor business leaders.

Their sector emits just 2% of aviation’s total greenhouse gases (itself 2% of total man-made carbon emissions) so it is being disproportionately vilified.

They are leading the way in using more climate-friendly technologies like Sustainable Aviation Fuels derived from plants, waste materials or even hydrogen.

The problem with sustainable aircraft fuel is that it only exists in tiny amounts compared to the demand from aeroplanes, and all attempts to scale it up are problematic.

The land demand for plant-derived fuel is eye-watering: powering all the planes in America on biofuel would take all the cropped land of America.

We don’t have the waste volumes and many feedstocks, like waste fats, are more efficiently used to make truck diesel. Synthetic fuels made with green hydrogen would demand huge chunks of our renewable electricity production.

Matt Finch is from the Europe-wide clean transport campaign group, Transport & Environment, one of the critics who, alongside Todd Smith and speakers from the Green Party, was invited to speak and challenge the delegates at this conference.

He says business aviation is not yet doing enough to cut carbon and governments are getting impatient.

“I think regulations will come down the line. If the sector doesn’t move fast enough, it will be regulated out of existence.”

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Holger Krahmer who runs the European Business Aviation Association scorns such regulation.

“These decisions and discussions are completely irrational because corporate aviation is 2% of [total aircraft] emissions. So if governments ground business jets or eliminate business aviation, you simply will not measure that.

“At the end of the day, every gram of CO2 counts for the same so, for the climate, it’s more relevant to ask the question: what is the contribution of the sector as a whole?”

Private jets are icons of wealth and power – the power to conquer distance on your own terms. But as the climate crisis is increasingly demanding tough choices from all of us, these super-polluting, super-rich jet-setters are on the defensive.

The Climate Show With Tom Heap airs at 3.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday and Sunday on Sky News

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