Robb Read: Are We On a Private Flight To Climate Hell?

Private aviation’s booming. Critics say flying’s wrecking the planet, but what are the facts?

By Mark Ellwood 23/05/2022

There’s never been a busier time for private aviation. Vista Global Holdings, for example, reported a 64 percent rise year on year in 2021 for its VistaJet and XO brands, and fractional behemoth NetJets reported a 30 per cent rise vs pre-pandemic levels. That boom, of course, was powered mostly by the switch to private flying as a result of Covid-19, but it’s likely to continue even as we move out of the pandemic phase: 92 per cent of the members of Private Jet Card Comparisons said they would fly the same or more in 2022 versus last year. Another 95 per cent said they would renew their card or program memberships.

But should we be getting on planes at all—let alone flying private? Are the environmental costs too great? Are carbon offsets just a way to relieve guilt and greenwash airline travel?

As the world’s attention on climate change intensifies, anti-take-off efforts are, well, taking off. Take the concept of flygskam, or flight shame. This Swedish-birthed anti-aviation campaign leverages social pressure to keep folks grounded: Cut out flights, flygskam-ers posit, and you’re making major sacrifices to offset climate change. Nothing’s worse in the sector than private aviation, with its let-them-eat-cake-at-60,000-feet reputation: Per one study, flying private can produce eight times more emissions per person than comparable jaunts on commercial carriers. So with a surge in private flying, and that sense of impending, aviation-induced doom, are we on the flightpath to hell?

Flightpath to Hell Climate Change

Worldwide flights produced 915 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2019, or 3.5 per cent of total output, while private aviation accounted for 37.1 million tons. Courtesy AP

The facts, of course, are a little more complicated. First, some data: Worldwide flights produced 915 million tons of CO2 in 2019, though the entire human output of that pollution was 43 billion tons total in the same year. By most estimates, per data from 2018, flying produces around 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions, or 3.5 percent of what’s known as “effective radiative forcing”—think of that as its overall impact. Another study says that business aviation contributes just 2 per cent to overall aviation emissions, but that on a per-person basis, its emissions are much more damaging on a per-person basis.  One study of private aviation’s annual contribution to greenhouse gas emissions pegged it at 37.1 million tons.

On the flip side, the Air Transport Action Group, an industry-funded body, touts that aviation overall would rank 17th in the world if its economic activity is compared with individual countries, or around the same as the Netherlands.

“Aircraft are tools of global trade—they can’t fly on fairy dust and neither can the global economy,” says Hong Kong-based Paul Jebely, head of asset finance at law firm Withers Worldwide; he works with UHNW folks across the world every day to buy and finance private planes. “There are lots of armchair Captain Planets who willfully overlook, or fail to recognize, the second- or third-order consequences of their flight shaming. That iPhone permanently glued to their hands has a bigger footprint to get into someone’s hand thanks to shipping, logistics and mining. But let’s go ahead and replace the aviation component with carrier pigeons on a gluten-free diet and, somehow, it’ll all be better.”

Portrait of Paul Jebely, head of asset finance at law firm Withers Worldwide

Paul Jebely Withers Worldwide

Jebely’s numbers are off: per one estimate, the lifetime carbon footprint of an iPhone is around 168 lbs of CO2-e (carbon dioxide or equivalent greenhouse gas); Apple’s own data shows that the environmental footprint of an iPhone 13Pro varies from 69kg- 111kg of CO2-e, depending on storage memory capacity. It’s hard to quantify the average carbon footprint of private jet travel, given variations in plane capacity and fuel efficiency, but by one estimate, the per person environmental impact of flying private is around 631 lbs of CO2-e per hour. The BBC Reality Check team’s own calculations produced a figure of 430kg per person for the same period.

Still, the truth is that there’s still good reason to make efforts to minimise the climate impact of every private flight.  Sustainability in this sector is in its infancy, but many leaders are making worthwhile strides. It’s responsible and responsive; corporations, too, are increasingly setting goals that include targets around CO2 emissions related to their business, including jet flights. The nimbleness of this sector, as well as the higher margins compared with commercial operation, mean that innovation should ignite more readily here. “Everyone in the entire aviation industry is well aware of the necessity of reducing aviation’s climate impact while also being aware of the fact that we’re bearing a heavier burden than other industries because of the public pressure,” Jebely continues. “But private aviation can and must and will do better.”

Jebely points, for example, to efforts by OEMs like Bombardier and Gulfstream to improve the footprint of their production processes. Fractional and charter firms, of course, are keen to tout their commitments to climate—NetJets, for example, now includes carbon offsets in all proposals, and has committed to buying 450 million litresof sustainable fuel from WasteFuel. Sustainable aviation fuel, which still has extremely limited distribution around the world, can cut aircraft emissions by 80 percent. No firm, though, goes as far as London-based Victor.

Flightpath to Hell Climate Change

Earlier this month, Bremen airport in Germany offered the airport’s first fueling with sustainable aviation fuel. Courtesy AP

The firm has established a program in which it pays for 200 per cent of every flight its clients charter. The money comes from Victor’s own bottom line, rather than as an add-on to its clients’ invoices. Last year, for instance, the company organized flights totalling 2.7 million nautical miles, which created 27,906 tons of emissions. Victor purchased 60,128 carbon credits that were invested in forest restoration and wind-power projects in Borneo, Cambodia and Turkey. The company bought 93 per cent of the credits, while its clients contributed 7 per cent. “My personal gold standard is to avoid flying whenever possible and the middle ground is to reduce how much we can fly,” says Victor Chairman Clive Jackson, who launched the program. “To mitigate means that if you have to fly then at least have the good grace to clean up after yourself.”  Translation: Buy carbon offsets or use sustainable aviation fuel.

Jackson says he brokers around 5,000 flights for clients per year, versus the 300,000 or so that, for instance, industry giant NetJets handles.

Carbon offsetting isn’t endorsed as a practice by all climate-change experts. “It has a long history of not lowering carbon levels,” says Greenpeace UK’s Charlie Kronick, who notes that his own organization doesn’t buy them as they don’t actually reduce the amount of carbon dioxide discharged into the atmosphere, the key metric for Greenpeace. “They are too often based on exaggerated claims of emissions reductions,” he says, “A one-off payment for a carbon credit does not assure the growth of trees, nor protection of forests from fires or industrial pressures.“

Clive Jackson, CEO of Victor

Clive Jackson, CEO of Victor Victor

While carbon offsetting is important, it’s much less sexy than another option touted as a solution to flying private, guilt-free: eVTOLs, (Electric Vehicle Take Off and Landing aircraft). Those Tony Stark-like concept planes rely on climate-friendly fuel for propulsion and take off and land much like helicopters. No wonder, then, that the real-life Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr, has invested in Whisper Aero, one of the startups aiming to pioneer this technology. The commitment has been attention-grabbing enough that it’s persuaded several celebrities to invest in different firms, including the J-Lo-backed Archer, and Larry Page’s Wisk, which have been embroiled in legal tussles.

The eVTOL segment, which has attracted serious financial investors for a half-dozen brands, expects to see it first electric aircraft certified in 2024 and 2025, with widespread adoption expected closer to 2030. Besides their emissions-free credentials, they will also offer new ways to commute within cities and regions., though eVTOL aircraft are likely to come into service as cargo carriers before being adopted for passenger transport.

Mike Hirschberg, the executive director of the Vertical Flight Society, the leading  eVTOL association, says battery technology will need to progress to increase range for the aircraft before there is widespread commercial use. Hirschberg adds that it’s vital that work on an infrastructure for eVTOLs starts sooner than later, and forecasts it will be at least a decade before eVTOLs are mainstream.

A wisk Aerotaxi in flight

A wisk Aerotaxi in flight

In the meantime, the industry is looking at piecemeal solutions. Kennedy Ricci, whose family owns Directional Aviation,  just launched 4Air, which offers a certification program that aims to be the eco equivalent of the safety ratings produced by industry-standards firm Argus. The start-up doesn’t handle flights, either as an operator or a broker, but instead works with companies that do to both improve their sustainability efforts and certify their actions to reassure clients. CSG targets at corporations are key drivers for his business growth, but Ricci tells Robb Report that there’s another audience that’s critical: “We see it’s a lot about employees—companies wanting to retain good talent who want to work for a more sustainable firm. They want to show their employees they’re trying to be better stewards.

The cost of partnering with 4Air on a flight program is minimal, per Ricci—a few hundred dollars at most per hour of flying for its most intensive certification. 4Air offers four tiers in its program, ranging from simple carbon neutrality in level 1, or Bronze, to a commitment to sustainable fuels in Gold or level 3—that’s a commitment to not just offset but also reduce emissions. The fourth tier, Platinum, is the company’s most ambitious: It involves a commitment to underwriting innovation in aviation via a contribution to the 4Air-helmed nonprofit Aviation Climate Fund. It focuses on research and development, working with innovators around the world, including the team at the Whittle Laboratory at Britain’s University of Cambridge. That lab is named after the jet engine inventor who graduated from the same university, and Professor Rob Miller is one of its current team.

Contrails from a jet airliner

Contrails from a jet airliner Adobe Stock

SAF and eVTOLs are, of course, potential solutions to the climate crisis when it comes to private flying, Miller says, but there are other, more unexpected ways that private aviation can lead the reduction in CO2. Take condensation trails, or contrails, for example. These remain in the upper atmosphere for far less time than carbon dioxide—hours versus years. “But nitrous oxide produced when you burn nitrogen in an aircraft, that’s a greenhouse gas, and soot is going into the atmosphere, too. The contrails can form cirrus clouds, too, and that has a global-warming effect,” he says, “When you add all those together, you find that CO2 is only really half the problem.”

Reducing contrails, then, should be a focus for aviation innovation, he says, citing work on hydrogen fuel-cell aircraft. “The hydrogen that reacts in the fuel cell is closer to the environmental temperature outside, so it doesn’t produce nitrous oxide or soot. And we don’t know for sure, but you may also be able to condense out some of the water.” Miller also points to routings of planes as an easy way to improve sustainability: Aircraft flying in the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic, for example, are more fuel efficient. “Right now, you have to be at a certain distance from each other because air traffic control is not good enough to allow them to be closer.” Aircraft manufacturers have changed their avionics to fly more efficient routes, resulting in an estimated five to ten percent reduction in emissions. All of these tweaks are more readily adopted by nimbler private flying firms, of course, than any large, commercial airliner.

Miller’s insights highlight easier wins that the aviation industry has overlooked. Congested air traffic control or ATC systems, for example, contribute hugely to emissions: Operational planes spend 15 percent of their time on the ground rather than in the air, burning fuel all the while. One fix touted by Paul Jebely is TSAS, a NASA-championed program from 2017 that promises to streamline ATCs. “The most important advancement aviation can make, globally right now, whether commercial or private, is making ATC systems way more efficient,” he says, “This is basically like a super software update to air navigation and ground control systems and is available right now. If it had been adopted two years ago, it would already have had an impact.” (Singapore’s Changi airport is currently trialing these systems.)

NASA TSAS air traffic management software simulation

NASA TSAS air traffic management software simulation NASA

It’s a reminder that there isn’t a single area where charter user and private aircraft owners should focus their sustainability efforts—carbon offsets might be box-ticking, but they’re still important. Wealthy fliers, though, can apply financial support or pressure in less familiar areas to perhaps greater effect. “People fixate on planes flying around the sky, and that’s a misplaced focus,” says Jebely. “The damage is done not just when they’re flying around but [when they’re built], and by them sitting on the ground.”

While there’s no easy solution to erasing aviation’s environmental impact, the solutions are being adopted—albeit slowly—by the leaders, and even some of the smaller firms in private aviation. Victor’s 200 percent offset program is a start, but the fact that only seven percent of its clients are willing to pay for offsets gives a sense that the change may have to come from top-down legislation or a more concerted industrywide effort to make SAF and electric aircraft more common.

Are we on the flightpath to hell with private aviation?

Many private aviation companies have launched carbon offset programs, but it’s not clear how effective they are in actually reducing carbon emissions. Courtesy AP

“We need a higher level of transparency,” says Victor’s Jackson. “I would like to see all flight movements published—was the flight a carbon-offset or not? I want it to be verified. Follow the money. We have to think about the claims that individuals and companies make as they aim to promote and differentiate themselves.

“Right now,” he continues. “There are no regulations or obligations to prove whether or not the claims companies are making are true. We need independent monitoring by region, industry and country. What goes into the atmosphere is important, but we also need to find out what we’re missing and whether our actions are working.”

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