The deceptive prestige of private jets

Graphics by Lucie Caputo

On July 29, 2022, sustainability-based data and technology agency Yard published an article titled “Just Plane Wrong: Celebs with the Worst Private Jet Co2 Emissions.” Celebrity Jet on Twitter reports celebrity private jet data about where they traveled, how much fuel was used, the approximate cost of that fuel, and roughly how much carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere after the flight of the jet. Based on the contents of this account, Yard has released a list of the top 10 celebrities whose private jets are currently leaving the largest carbon footprint. The report is not currently peer reviewed and contains a lengthy disclaimer: “The purpose of this study is to highlight the harmful impact of using private jets.” It has stimulated public conversation about the lives of luxury these celebrities lead. The disproportionate impact celebrity private jets are having on the planet — amid an already troubling climate crisis — is an example of the gulf between the fabulously wealthy individuals and the average individuals who glorify them.

This report has many average citizens wondering why they care about their seemingly insignificant efforts to save the planet. Why would they wash away all their bottles and cans before recycling them, buying second hand clothes or using public transport, if celebrities are setting a drastically different example?

According to the study, the top 10 celebrities who have the highest carbon dioxide emissions from private jets in the past year include Taylor Swift, Floyd Mayweather, Jay-Z, Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod), Blake Shelton, Steven Spielberg , Kim Kardashian , Mark Wahlberg, Oprah Winfrey and Travis Scott. Since its original publication, both a Taylor Swift rep and an attorney for Jay-Z have publicly contested the article. Swift’s rep said “Taylor’s jet is loaned out to other people on a regular basis. Ascribing most or all of these trips to her is patently incorrect. Jay-Z’s attorney also informed the Washington Post that the private jet doesn’t rightfully belong to the artist — it’s officially owned by Puma. Yard has added a disclaimer to their article, which reflects this information. Aside from the technicalities behind whether or not these celebrities traveled on every single flight outlined, there is still a bigger picture to be seen within the findings of this report: the astronomical amount of carbon dioxide that was released from their private jets.

At the time the Yard data was released, the celebrities on the list had ultimately released about 3376.64 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from their private jets in 2022 alone. This amount of carbon dioxide is “482.37 times more than the average person’s annual emissions,” according to Yard. Airplanes leave behind the most negative environmental impact of all other forms of transportation. These data demonstrate a colossal divide between the rich and the common man.

The disconnect doesn’t end with Yard’s list of top celebrity climate offenders. Private jets are owned and used regularly by wealthy politicians, famous athletes, and other wealthy individuals with enough money to engage in private air travel. Calling for the use of private jets to stop would likely be an unpopular and impractical proposition. The Washington Post recently discussed this climate issue with Johns Hopkins University associate professor of environmental health and engineering, Peter DeCarlo. DeCarlo recognized the social and environmental dangers of using private jets. “There are valid claims that grounding private jets probably won’t do what we need to go in the right direction regarding climate change,” DeCarlo told the Post. “But it’s just really bad optics.” Professor DeCarlo pointed out that the average individual who admires a celebrity flaunting his lavish travels in an expensive and eye-catching private jet may encourage the appeal of private jets as a status symbol. More people buying private jets would mean releasing even greater amounts of carbon dioxide in a climate that’s already in crisis mode.

One solution to mitigating the effects of private jets could be a combination of policies to regulate and limit private jet travel and put public pressure on jet owners to fly more cautiously, with an eye to sustainability. Yard’s intended purpose in publishing their list was to raise awareness and put this public pressure on them. By exposing the disproportionate amounts of carbon dioxide these celebrities emit with their private jets compared to the average person, these frequent jet users are once again placed in the public eye, this time through a shaming lens, encouraging them to do better.

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