Taylor Swift and other celebrities are being criticised for how much they use private jets. So how bad are they for the environment?

Taylor Swift and other celebrities are being criticised for how much they use private jets. So how bad are they for the environment?

Data released last month showed just how often the private jets of some of the world’s wealthiest celebrities have been taking to the skies.

The flight-tracking information claimed singer-songwriter Taylor Swift was the most frequent flyer, with her plane racking up 170 flights since January — creating more than 400 times the average person’s total annual emissions.

“I love Taylor Swift, but her private jet usage is indefensible,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Celebrities and politicians shouldn’t be above the rest of us when it comes to climate change.”

So why do private jets cause so much concern, and are they really that bad for the environment?

Taylor Swift and other celebrities are being criticised for how much they use private jets. So how bad are they for the environment?
Angelina Jolie arrives in Myanmar on a private jet in 2015.(Reuters: Soe Zeya Tun)

What does the data show about celebrity jets?

In July, marketing agency Yard released data it had collected from a flight tracking bot called Celeb Jets, which regularly posts to Twitter with detailed flight information from private planes.

This information was used to name celebrities who use their private jets a lot.

Like … a lot.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather‘s plane took more flights than Taylor Swift’s overall, with an average of 25 flights per month — that’s one flight almost every day.

However, Swift still topped the list of estimated emissions, followed closely by the likes of Mayweather, rappers Drake and Jay-Z, influencer Kim Kardashian and director Steven Spielberg.

Yard’s digital sustainability director, Chris Butterworth, said private jet owners were “a massive part” of the aviation industry’s emissions issue.

“Aviation is responsible for 2.4 per cent of human-produced carbon every year, and research shows a vast divide between the super-rich and the rest of us regarding flights, travel, and even general emissions,” he said.

How did the public respond?

Social media was awash with Taylor Swift memes soon after the data came to light.

The singer received most of the backlash, due to topping the emissions list.

Responding to the anger directed at Swift, some of her fans on Reddit apparently considered giving up beef to help offset the musician’s carbon emissions.

A spokesperson for Swift told a number of media outlets that her jet was “regularly” loaned out to other people, so it wasn’t always being used by her.

There was similar backlash in July when model and influencer Kylie Jenner posted a photo of herself and her rapper partner Travis Scott with their private planes, along with the caption, “You wanna take mine or yours?”

kylie jenner instagram post

Flight data has also shown Jenner’s plane taking very short trips, sometimes completed in less than half an hour.

One Twitter user said it showed her “absolute disregard for the planet”.

Jenner isn’t the only celebrity whose private jet has been seen taking very short flights.

Here is a plane owned by Tesla CEO and one of the world’s richest people, Elon Musk, taking a nine-minute flight between San Jose and San Francisco — a distance that normally takes less than an hour to drive.

And here’s retired golfer Jack Nicklaus‘s plane taking an 18-minute flight and creating an estimated 1 tonne of CO2 emissions in the process.

Some celebrities have defended such short flights by saying their planes are only being moved from one airport to another airport for logistical reasons.

This includes Drake, who owns a Boeing 767 that has been extensively modified.

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There was also controversy last year when a number of world leaders and delegates travelled to the COP26 climate summit in Scotland using private planes.

At the time, aviation analytics company Cirium told the BBC there were a total of 76 flights involving private jets, or VIP flights, arriving in and around Glasgow across a four-day period.

A number of private jets and small planes sit on tarmac at an airport. Large and small buildings in the background.
A private jet lands in Prestwick, Scotland, as world leaders gather for the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).(Reuters: Dylan Martinez)

Are private jets actually worse for the environment than other planes?

The short answer is yes, and it’s because of the smaller number of people on board.

Tim Ryley, Professor of Aviation at Griffith University, says while emissions vary depending on a plane’s size, efficiency and load, private jets generally produce significantly more emissions per passenger than commercial flights.

What’s more, most plane emissions occur during take-off and landing, which is an issue given that private jets are often used very frequently.

“When you have more emissions in taking off and landing than in the overall flight, there’s a lot in that with private jets,” Professor Ryley says.

Here are some statistics on how private plane emissions stack up:

  • A 2021 study found that because private jets carry so few people, they can be up to 14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial planes
  • Private jets were also found to be 50 times more polluting than trains.
  • Private aviation has been found to account for around 4 per cent of global aviation emissions. It may not sound like much, but remember they are much worse in terms of emissions per person.
  • Private flights are believed to contribute more than 33 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases per year — that’s the same as around a third of Australia’s annual emissions for all forms of transport.
An internal view of a small private jet, showing six leather seats, wooden sideboards and screens
Private planes usually carry a much smaller number of passengers than typical commercial flights.(Reuters: Paulo Whitaker)

The rise of ‘flightshame’

Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism at Griffith University, says that amid an accelerating climate crisis, private planes are “becoming a symbol of excessive consumerism and shame”.

Her work has explored the spread of flightshame, a term that originated in Europe and which captures the feeling of being ashamed of flying, and in some cases sharing these feelings on social media, where the strongest language gets the most attention.

“The more polarised, the more the language is emotionally charged, the more likely it will get retweeted or liked,” she says.

“In Europe, people now really try to sometimes even hide the fact that they fly.”

Professor Ryley says the further divorced a private jet owner’s lifestyle is from that of a normal person, the more critical the general public are likely to be.

“There’s a growing movement in calling out people that are flying a lot, and the emissions that they generate,” he says.

“The group that are particularly vocal against this kind of usage is small, but it’s growing.”

A private jet sits on tarmac at an airport, with a smaller private plane in the foreground. Buildings and powerlines in the back
Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s private jet is seen in Schoenefeld, Germany in September 2020.(Reuters: Hannibal Hanschke)

Can we fix the private jet problem?

Professor Becken says that while the two key mechanisms for changing people’s behaviour would be increasing prices or shifting the social norms, she doesn’t see pricing being an effective strategy with the wealthy owners of private jets.

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