12 November 2019

Why banning private jets flies in the face of reason

By Sam Packer

Counterpoint: To read the case for banning private jets, click here

According to the International Air Transport Association, aviation accounts for roughly 2% of global carbon emissions and private planes are a tiny fraction of that number. Yet Labour are apparently considering banning private jets, something advocated by Leo Murray on this site recently. Before analyzing the moral and political questions raised by banning any form of transport, it is worth considering the supposed reason behind banning private planes: their impact on the environment and, specifically, carbon emissions.

Rough figures from the US Energy Information Administration suggest that jet fuel produces 9.57kg of CO2 per gallon burnt. Stats released by the think-tank Common Wealth suggest that in 2018, 142,000 or roughly 6% of the flights taken to and from the UK were on private jets. Despite private jets being less “efficient” in terms of per-capita carbon emissions (over 8 times as much is emitted per head on the most popular private jet flights versus typical Boeing 737 flights), the actual emissions per three-hour flight average out per journey to roughly 6,030kg of CO2, versus 21,533kg on a commercial flight.

The UK has a disproportionately large number of private jet users, and trans-continental routes are less commonly flown by private jets, meaning that UK statistics do not provide an accurate read-across for global emissions. But using UK figures as an example, private flights accounted for just 6% of air traffic in 2019. Given that a typical private flight produces one third of the emissions of its commercial equivalent, we can estimate that private jet travel accounts for less than 2% of the 2% of carbon emissions produced by air travel, a sum equivalent to roughly 0.04% of emissions.

This perspective is critically important. Any proposed ban would be targeted at the less than 0.04% of carbon emissions produced by private planes. The minuteness of this number serves to highlight the ridiculousness of such campaigns. This change will not come close to saving the planet. Which begs the question: what is this proposal really about?

Here is another hypothesis: it is about envy and control. The real focus is on undermining individual choice and freedom.

It is hardly revelatory to suggest that anti-private ownership policies based, supposedly, on environmental concerns, are actually based on the coercive principles and moral absolutism of socialism – just look at the eagerness with which Extinction Rebellion campaigners set up socialist workshops around London during their last period of protest, or their willingness to disrupt even carbon-friendly forms of transport, like the London Underground. Despite their avowed hatred of populism, such campaigners are quite willing to turn to policies like banning private jets, which attack a small group of people in order to win support for a broader and much more sinister agenda.

The politics of envy are powerful and it will be difficult to find popular support for a defense of the super-rich’s travel habits. Yet there is a far greater principal at stake: that ownership rights belong to the individual, and that no one should have a right to veto how someone else chooses to spend their money or live their life. Given the tiny level of emissions actually caused by private aircraft, no one can seriously argue that they present any sort of threat to public health or major impact on the environment. This is a simple question of emotion versus reason.

Political and moral questions aside, there are also practical questions to raise. How would private jet passengers travel were their planes to be banned? The strong proponents of such policies would probably be hopeful that they would not, as their wealth would be “democratized” in the hands of the government. But should private wealth remain a factor, it seems highly likely that the super-rich will fly more regularly on commercial planes, increasing demand and pushing prices up for everyone else. Furthermore, if you can afford a private jet, you are unlikely to buy just the single seat. Instead they would be likely to do what government ministers do, and book out entire sections of planes for themselves. Whilst this would be good news for airlines, it would be terrible news for normal members of the public.

It is worth reflecting too that the Government itself is hardly a modicum of restraint; who can forget the dreams of “Blair Force One?” David Cameron eventually succeeded where Blair could not and the British Government got its own jet in 2016; in part because they were already paying for such a large number of private flights!

Banning private planes would do almost nothing to reduce carbon emissions, but it would be a great victory for opponents of private enterprise and choice. At its heart, it is not an environmentalist proposal but rather a socialist one, cynically targeted at a small and wealthy subset of the population. Seeing the super-rich at the check in desk might briefly make us feel virtuous, but we would all suffer for it in terms of the impact on prices. Perhaps most worryingly, in the longer term it would set a precedent for undermining liberty. And when the next eco-socialist proposal is to ban cars with only one driver and no passengers, we might wish we had drawn the line at private jets.

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Sam Packer is the Media Campaign Manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance