Environmental groups have long criticized the private aviation sector for being a disproportionally large contributor to global carbon dioxide emissions, and last week, climate activists made headlines by disrupting a private jet trade fair in Switzerland.
Because they often travel shorter distances than commercial jets, private jets are generally less efficient, and their emissions per passenger are much higher. According to data from European non-profit Transport and Environment, private jets can be five to 14 times more polluting than commercial planes, and 50 times more polluting than trains.
Yet the private aviation sector has seen considerable growth in recent years. A report by the Institute for Policy Studies revealed that it set industry records in 2021 and 2022, with the size of the global fleet growing by 133% since 2000.
Research commissioned by Greenpeace showed that private jets in Europe alone emitted 3.39 million metric tons of CO2 in 2022, roughly equivalent to the emissions from 753,000 gasoline-powered cars in the US driven for a year.
But experts say the sector can still play a crucial role in the global fight against climate change, and some in the industry are looking at innovative ways to reduce its environmental impact.
As a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), along with other major commercial airlines, Dubai-based private aviation company Jetex is aiming to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
Launched in 2005 by CEO Adel Mardini, Jetex now has 750 employees based across dozens of private terminals around the world – including Dubai, Miami, Paris and Beijing.
Through a partnership with oil company Neste, in 2021 Jetex started offering sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), made from renewable waste and residue raw materials, to passengers at its Helsinki Airport terminal. That same year at its Paris Le-Bourget Airport terminal, it began offering SAF produced by French company TotalEnergies, made from used cooking oil.
A limited supply of SAF means it isn’t available at every airport, but the company says it wants to make SAF an alternative fuel option to its travelers across all its locations worldwide.
“We are constantly thinking of how we can work together with everyone, for climate change to (have less of an impact on) our lives and futures,” Mardini told CNN, adding that Jetex is working on transforming all of its locations into fully green private terminals in the future.
Aviation accounted for over 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021, but according to the IATA, SAF can reduce CO2 emissions by 80% and will be the biggest single contributor to reaching its 2050 net zero carbon emissions target.
Scarcity, however, remains the biggest challenge, according to Dr. Suzanne Kearns, associate professor of aviation at the University of Waterloo, in Canada.
“We expect that maybe 60 to 70% of (the aviation sector’s) emissions reductions will come from the integration of sustainable aviation fuels. But the reality is that today, it is two to eight times as expensive as traditional aviation fuels, and its accessibility is limited, so it’s not available at every airport,” Dr. Kearns told CNN.
She adds that if the private aviation sector became an early adopter of SAF, “The economies of scale could make them more affordable and those benefits could carry over to the other aspects of the aviation industry.”
While not every airport has SAF, last week Jetex signed an agreement that lets it offer SAF to its customers around the world. Working with 360 Jet Fuel Ltd, passengers will be able to use what is known as “Book and Claim system,” paying for SAF at an airport that has it, to offset some or all of the regular fuel used by the plane they are traveling on. Effectively, it means they can “source” SAF for flights from airports that do not have a supply.
The use of SAF in private aviation is slowly becoming more widespread. UK-based jet charter platform Victor, for example, also has a partnership with Neste and recently announced that 20% of its travelers are voluntarily opting to use some SAF for their flights, using a Book-and-Claim-style system it calls “pay here, use there.”
Jetex also unveiled plans last year to launch what it calls the world’s first “pure green” private terminal, at Berlin’s Neuhardenberg Airport, which is home to one of the biggest solar farms in Europe.
“There is the solar farm around the airport, which will fully cover energy requirements of the airport. We also plan to use electric vehicles to achieve zero-net carbon emissions,” said Mardini.
With its Berlin terminal still under development, the company has been taking small steps to transform some of its other locations, including Dubai, London, Paris, and Singapore, into fully “green” terminals by the end of 2024.
Looking further ahead, Jetex is exploring the use of electrical aircraft, and has implemented strategic partnerships with urban air mobility companies including Volocopter and Eve Air Mobility to accelerate the development of eVTOL, or electric vertical takeoff and landing craft, which are sometimes referred to as flying taxis.
EVTOL aircraft have a more limited range than private jets, and would be used for short flights around and between cities – which, in the future, could be an eco-friendlier option for the many celebrities who’ve been criticized for traveling short distances in their private jets.
“We are seeing some really exciting innovations coming from private aviation,” said Dr. Kearns.
“These eVTOLs are pivotal to how people are imagining what they call advanced air mobility,” she added. “These … aircraft will be moving people around urban environments without the emissions that would be produced through having traditional or conventional aviation fuel.
“This entire sector is growing incredibly rapidly and it’s exciting because it’s an area where private aviation is actually leading the charge to move people forward to imagine what a sustainable future for air transportation could look like.”
This story has been updated to reflect the number of Jetex employees globally.