October 11, 2022
We do not pollute all in the same way: why the jets of the rich open a reflection on inequality
Interview with the project Jet of the rich, by Adil Mauro
Within a few months, an Instagram account managed by an anonymous collective of activists under 30 managed to bring the issue of climate inequality to the attention of public opinion. The "Jet of the rich" project estimates the CO2 emissions produced by private flights of the richest people in Italy and seeks through three simple proposals to address the environmental impact of private aviation. Suffice it to say that "a private jet in five hours of flight produces emissions equal to those of four people in a year, only for the transport sector".
During the recent electoral campaign for the political elections, the Green - Italian Left alliance made "Jet of the rich"'s requests its own. However, there was no lack of criticism and controversy from some sectors of information and in particular politics, but as one of the people involved in the project explained to us, the goal is not to "stimulate social envy, but rather social awareness".
Q: How did the "Jet for the rich" come about?
A: ""Jet of the rich" was born in June of this year on the initiative of a group to which I belong. We are all men and women under 30. The inspiration comes from abroad, especially from the United States and France where compared to Italy there is a greater awareness of certain environmental issues. In France a few months ago a page was born that tracks and follows the flights of billionaire Bernard Arnauld. We decided to do the same here, without limiting ourselves to following the movements of a single person".
Q: Why did you decide to tackle the issue of climate inequality starting from private jets?
A: "We know very well that regulating the private aviation sector will not solve the problem of pollution or even global warming. However, I believe it is a highly symbolic struggle with much wider repercussions. The idea of focusing on private jets stems from the fact that a huge part of global pollution is attributable to the richest 10% and an even more disproportionate part of global emissions, 17%, is attributable to the 1%. No economic sector is more polluting in per capita terms than private aviation. The decision to focus on private jets helps us analyze the problem of emissions-related pollution through the lens of inequality, but it is not an attempt to reduce or simplify the issue by blaming the 1%. It is absolutely not that".
Q: What tools are available to you?
A: "When it comes to flight tracking, there are multiple platforms that basically do the same thing. The names are Open Sky Network, Flight Radar and ADS-B Exchange. These are platforms that allow you to follow flights in real time and are absolutely open. Some require a subscription to access certain information, but as a rule it is essentially open to the public and anyone can consult it. This is something we put a lot of emphasis on: we don't spy on anyone and we don't have access to confidential information. Everything we do is open data and can be replicated by anyone who wants to do it. Once we know the flight or flights that have been carried out, we just need to know the model of the plane and the flight time to calculate the emissions and at this point our sources are NGOs and think tanks that deal with pollution. Let's take their data to find out how much an Italian pollutes on average or how many tons of CO2 are equivalent to an hour of flight on a certain plane. You just need to familiarize yourself with these platforms bearing in mind that some planes are not tracked on one platform but on another. It is therefore important to triangulate and use different sources. Then there is another research work on airplane license plates to establish with certainty the connection between a particular person and his airplane because we do not want to make unfounded inferences. To be sure, a research effort similar to any open source investigative journalism work must be carried out".
Q: Can you tell us about your proposals to regulate the environmental impact of private aviation?
A: "First of all we are not policy makers. At the beginning we just wanted to pose a problem and let politics discuss and find solutions. Unfortunately, with a few rare exceptions, we have not received constructive proposals from politics. For this reason we have decided to propose solutions inspired by what we have learned in recent months. The proposals that we have written down and that are available on our channel are quite simple. The first is that of a partial ban that makes travel by private jet illegal when the same route can be made with an alternative means of transport. Prohibition to be extended also to flights that do not exceed a certain distance. We have proposed 500 km, but it could be even less as we know that many private jet trips are very short and easily avoidable. A classic case is Turin - Milan, a journey that can be traveled with a Frecciarossa train in less than 50 minutes. It is a very frequent private jet route because it takes about half an hour. To save a few minutes, several tons of CO2 are released into the atmosphere. The second is to tax kerosene. We believe it absurd, and this applies to aviation in general, that the kerosene used by airplanes is not taxed while that for cars is. This absence of taxation works as a sort of subsidy to the most polluting means of transport and it is particularly scandalous that not even private planes, that is a means of luxury transport, are subject to taxation. Finally, the third proposal is to impose a tax on flights that is not a tax on fuel, but on the individual route since the sector can afford it. Users of private jets can afford to pay an extra tax, also because a tax of this kind, called the air taxi tax, already exists in Italy. The amount of the tax varies according to the duration of the trip and ranges from 10 to 200 euros per passenger. Imagine flying in a private jet from Rome to Tokyo emitting tens of tons of CO2, comparable to what dozens of people emit in a whole year, and you have to pay a maximum of 200 euros when the same trip can easily cost 100,000 euros. You understand that these are derisory figures that do not discourage travel or create tax revenue for the state. Furthermore, we also know that this tax is very often not paid. Massive evasions have been discovered committed by chartering companies that rent jets. The amounts of this tax should be increased as well as the controls to ensure that it is not evaded".
Q: Your project caused a lot of discussion during the election campaign.
A: "We are very happy that this debate has entered the political debate and we have very much thanked the Greens and the Italian Left for taking an interest in the issue. During the election campaign it is normal that certain issues are treated with a certain superficiality and that perhaps the slogan takes precedence over the serious political proposal. We know very well that abolishing private jets is more of a slogan, as there are legitimate private aviation segments, such as diplomatic flights or when a private jet is used to give access to care to those living on an island or in a remote place. The abolition of private jets is not in itself a truly viable option. However, it is possible to adopt a radical regulation of the sector to ensure that emissions decrease drastically and those who use private jets are forced to pay the fair, paying the community for the pollution they produce".
Q: Which are the most frequent criticisms you have received so far?
A: "The most frequent criticism we have come across is that we are 'rich phobes' and that we are plagued by a sort of social envy that anyone who asks for a regulation of private jets is actually just envious because they cannot afford to have a private jet. And then we might as well prevent others from taking it. This is not the case, of course. We do not want to stimulate social envy in those who follow us, but to stimulate social awareness on the fact that pollution is a phenomenon that must be seen through the lens of inequality. We do not pollute all in the same way and it is not fair that politics ask to always make sacrifices to the same ones. We hear every now and then that the solution to the energy crisis is to turn off the pasta water while cooking. Here, we do not think it is right to ask for sacrifices from normal people and at the same time to oppose the regulation of private jets that we know to be the most polluting means of transport per capita. Another slightly more articulate criticism states that regulating private jets will create a loss of ancillary activities. We are therefore talking about billionaires who stop coming to Italy, manufacturing industries that stop producing airplanes and lost jobs. In reality, those who travel to our country by private jet will continue to do so even if they will have to pay taxes. The private aviation industry, even if it were to suffer from these measures, is a very small industry whose emissions are gigantic compared to its size. We also know that the sector's demand is 'inelastic', to use a technical term, in the sense that an increase in prices will not dramatically impact demand".
Q: We asked Michele Giuli, spokesperson for Ultima Generazione, an Italian campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience that calls for urgent and concrete action against climate collapse, for an opinion on the "Jet for the rich" project.
A: "Ultima Generazione does not have an official position on the subject of private jets because at the moment it deals with other things but we are open to talk about it. I know very well that 1% of the population is responsible for 50% of the emissions and this is a scandal, however I want to emphasize one thing when we talk about this data. The 1% of the population does not only mean the super rich with the private jet, but also a large part of the western population of the upper middle class to which many climate activists belong. Without a doubt, the private jet is a scandal but in 2022, with the catastrophe we are in, even taking an airliner to go for a protest about the climate is nonsense. We have three or four years to cut emissions as Sir David King, one of the world's leading climatologists said, or else we will reach those tipping points where the rise in temperatures will be absolutely non-linear: for every point of return we lose, we will increase about 0.3 degrees more. According to some studies, the Arctic will be dissolved by 2035. Private jets must therefore be stopped, but at the same time I have a strategic concern that starts from the difference between protest and resistance. The protest signals that there is a problem but it ends there. Making civil resistance as a historical method means forcing the government to legislate. There's no use protesting the rich if you don't have a direct conflict plan with the state. I see the risk that protesting against the rich - a right thing in itself - will be ineffective if we don't include the government in the conversation. And I'm not saying one thing excludes the other. However, we need to think about the whole package and maintain a systemic analysis of what needs to be changed".