Why are people still flying to climate conferences by private jet?
Rishi Sunak is one of more than 70,000 delegates representing nearly 200 countries who attended the UN Climate Summit in Dubai. They are just a few of the hundreds of delegates who have traveled by private jet. The UK’s prime minister, foreign secretaries, and a king traveled on separate planes.
Around 315 trips by private jet were made at COP27 last year in Egypt. This is a remarkable statistic, particularly since fewer world leaders were present at that COP as they were busy attending the G20 summit in Bali.
We have, therefore, set up a group of academic experts who will estimate the carbon footprint for travel to this year’s meeting in Dubai (COP28) using different modes of transportation, including private jets. In the end, we want attendees to be able to make climate-conscious choices about their travel.
We also compared the carbon footprints of the previous three COPs in order to see where conferences could be held to discourage attendees from using private planes unless it was necessary for security. We don’t have the full data, but we can assume that personal jet use last year and this year will be increasing.
Carbon footprint of transportation modes
The burning of jet fuel produces emissions, and the vapor trails create clouds at high altitudes that trap heat. There are no electric planes that we can use to reduce carbon emissions.
Private jets have the highest emissions. Dushlik / Shutterstock
Personal jet travel is one of the most polluting modes of transportation, using a lot of fuel while carrying very few passengers. Thomas Piketty, a French economist, argues that private jets are a prime example of class inequalities and need to be addressed if climate change is to be combated.
The use of these products by prominent people undermines the goals of a climate summit. It shows a disconnect between individual actions and environmental concerns, as well as a lack of commitment to sustainable practices. In turn, this could influence public opinion. According to previous research, the public takes climate change less seriously when they believe that leaders aren’t doing their part.
Our first step was to examine the use of private aircraft for COP27 (our results can be found as a Preprint before formal peer review). The majority of private flights were short-haul. It was often only an hour from Cairo to the conference venue at Sharm El-Sheikh. Shorter distances require more fuel, as landing and taking off consumes more than cruising.
Avoiding short flights or private jets is a must. We looked at a variety of options for UK-based participants to reach COP28 in Dubai.
Private jets are 11 times more polluting for a trip from London to Dubai than commercial aircraft. They’re 35 times worse than trains and 52 times worse than coaches (even when you factor in the flight from Istanbul since you can’t get all the way to Dubai via train or coach). The longer flight from the UK to Dubai than to Egypt will result in higher emissions this year.
Carbon intensity of transport (grammes of CO2equivalents) from London to the COP28:
Flight emissions are calculated based on travels from London, UK, to Dubai. The emissions of cars, trains, and coaches are calculated based on a journey from London to Istanbul followed by a flight. Private jet emissions were calculated using a Cessna 680 Citation Sovereign, commercial flight emissions were calculated using an Airbus A380 300, and car journeys for a Vauxhall Corsa. Roberts et al. (2023), CC BY-SA
Location of the COP
UNFCCC, the UN agency that decides the location of COP meetings, must take some responsibility for the emissions from flights. Dubai is surrounded by conflict zones that block land routes to Europe, Asia, and Africa, making flying essential.
Most delegates want to travel sustainably, but their actions will depend upon the availability of alternatives, such as safe land routes or direct flights for those who are coming from a distance.
Dubai is an excellent choice in this regard, as it’s a major airline hub. There are a lot of direct flights from Dubai, and there is less need for internal or second flights.
Our analysis shows that travel to COP events has a significant carbon footprint. Policymakers will ultimately need to identify climate change meeting locations that can minimize the carbon footprints of participants.
However, private jets remain unadvisable. They have a much higher carbon footprint than other modes of transport.