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Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

'Make Them Pay' Campaign Calls Out Private Jets, But Billionaire Climate Philanthropists Disagree

protest against private jets - A photo of activists from the Make Them Pay Campaign blocking access to a private jet terminal in Berlin in November 2022.

Scientists and activists with the groups Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion protest outside a private jet terminal in Berlin in November 2022. 

Climate scientists and activists have posted up at private jet terminals in a string of demonstrations over recent months. They’re hoping to draw attention to what they call “luxury emissions.” Unsurprisingly, some of the planet’s most prolific climate philanthropists are among the “super-rich mega polluters" the activists are looking to tax out of the skies

Half of aviation emissions caused by one percent

Commercial airlines can carry hundreds more passengers than private jets. Yet, on average, a private jet burns twice as much fuel as a commercial one ⸺ gobbling up 5,000 gallons for each hour in the air, according to the private jet charter site Bit Lux Travel. That’s the same as 400 vehicles driving the road for the same time period. 

To put it another way, just an hour of flight time in a private jet can release up to 2 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s equivalent to almost a quarter of the emissions the average European resident produces in an entire year, according to the European Federation for Transport and Environment. The Federation also reported that just 1 percent of the global population is responsible for half of all air travel emissions.

“Burning tons of fuel for luxury flights is incredibly unfair during a cost-of-living crisis, and criminal within the context of an intensifying climate crisis," Inês Teles of the activist network Stay Grounded told Euronews.

Activists and climate scientists take action to curb use of private jets

Stay Grounded is a group of activists and nonprofits working to build equitable transportation systems while decreasing reliance on aviation. Members joined other activists from Scientist Rebellion and Extinction Rebellion on Valentine’s Day to block private jet terminals at numerous European airports, including the Bromma Airport in Stockholm, the Luton Airport in London, the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and more, as part of the ongoing Make Them Pay campaign.

You may also remember the January demonstration that blocked access to private jets at the Swiss airport used by many attending the World Economic Forum in Davos. That was also part of the Make Them Pay campaign and held by activists with Stay Grounded member Debt for Climate, which more broadly stands for the annulment of all foreign debt owed by the Global South. The Jan. 16 action followed 11 similar protests in November of last year, where activists demanded bans on private jets.

“It is time to ban private jets and tax frequent flyers to the ground,” Dr. Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist at NASA and member of Scientist Rebellion, told Euronews. “We cannot allow the rich to sacrifice our present and future in the pursuit of their luxury lifestyles."

Climate philanthropists are among the biggest private jet users

Yet quite a few self-proclaimed climate philanthropists are guilty of contributing far more than their fair share of emissions by way of private jets. Mike Bloomberg, for example, who is well known for his climate investments and involvement at the U.N. Conference of the Parties (COPs), took 702 flights that released almost 3,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2022. That’s more than 205 average Americans produced in a year, according to Climate Jets, an interactive tracking website created by 17-year-old Akash Shendure

Likewise, Mark Zuckerberg, who pledged $44 million to fight climate change last year, took 367 flights in 2022, causing more pollution in 563 hours than 152 Americans did all year. His average flight was less than two hours long. It's also worth noting that most of Zuckerberg’s climate investments are earmarked for carbon capture, which scientists warn is not a viable pathway to net-zero emissions. 

Meanwhile, Bill Gates appears wholeheartedly convinced that his purchase of offset credits that fund carbon capture absolves his guilt over producing more emissions during his 658 hours of private flight time than 197 regular Americans did in all of 2022. "I'm comfortable with the idea that not only am I not part of the problem by paying for the offsets,” Gates told the BBC’s Amol Rajan when asked about climate hypocrisy, but he insisted that he was part of the solution.

But paying to pull carbon out of the air and sequester it underground for an indefinite period of time is hardly the same as not polluting in the first place, which to some only reaffirms that Gates and his fellow billionaires see the climate crisis not as a problem to solve, but as a product to sell. In giving his defense to Rajan, Gates also betrayed his inflated sense of self-importance. "Should I stay at home and not come to Kenya and learn about farming and malaria?" he asked, as if Zoom does not exist. His average flight was just over an hour and a half long.

Taxes and bans may be the only way

Clearly, billionaires cannot be counted on to limit their own emissions to reasonable levels, regardless of how much lip service they pay the climate. Whereas they could be leading by example, they choose to use their private jets like cross-town taxis all the while promulgating the ridiculous notion that anyone with enough money can buy environmental righteousness. 

“I can't stand by watching the emissions from my industry continue to grow and contribute so heavily to the climate carnage wreaking havoc around the world,” Finlay Asher, an activist and aerospace engineer who participated in one of the protests, is quoted as saying in Euronews. “These impacts are mostly felt by the poorest communities, so it's sickening to also realize that an elite minority of super-rich mega polluters are responsible for the majority of global emissions from air travel.”

The Make Them Pay campaign intends to do just that — make the “super-rich mega polluters” pay for the disproportionate amount of damage they are doing to the planet. In addition to demanding an outright ban on private jets, activists are calling for heavy taxes on fuel as well as frequent flyers. 

“The proceeds from this tax should be used to finance affordable public transport for all and climate reparations to those most affected by the climate crisis, who are also the least responsible,” Sara Campbell, an activist from Extinction Rebellion, told Euronews.

Image credit: Stay Grounded/Flickr and Janiere Fernandez/Pexels

Riya Anne Polcastro headshot

Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop. 

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