(Image: Paramount Pictures)

A popular Twitter account set up by a teenager and powered by a bot has ignited discussion about the carbon emissions of the rich and the famous. Private jetsetting is carbon intensive — as Jack Sweeney’s Elon Musk-baiting @CelebJets account shows — but so too is strapping into a standard plane.

Climate and energy consultant Ketan Joshi put it bluntly: billionaire or not, if you’re flying, “you are someone’s Kylie Jenner”. Or Tom Cruise or Vladimir Putin or Musk, the latter of whom wanted to pay Sweeney to take his Twitter account down.

Only 5%-10% of the world’s population flies in any given year, with frequent flier passengers accounting for 1% of the globe and three-quarters of total passenger emissions. The top 10 frequent flyer countries account for 60% of the world’s total aviation emissions.

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Co-Director of the Energy Transition Hub, Associate Professor Malte Meinshausen, told Crikey that although wealthier segments of the population have the finances to fund a low-carbon lifestyle, they tend to balance this with carbon intensive activities like flying.

“Actual negative emissions costs quite a bit more than the feel-good tick box option of planting a tree,” Meinshausen said. “But at the moment we don’t have the regulatory frameworks to ask people not to use shoddy credits to offset their emissions.”

There’s a thick manual for calculating carbon emissions by air travel. In short, it is about fuel consumption, but bums on seats also play a big part. Empty planes are much more carbon intensive than full loads. As is first class v economy travel. Put simply: more breathing room means more emissions.

According to Google Flights’ built-in carbon-o-metre, a one-way Qantas-Emirates economy ticket from Sydney to London today costs $1811 and sets you back 1232kg of CO2. A business class seat on the same flight quadruples your carbon footprint. Compare that to flying up front in first class: five times the sardine seats and almost seven times the price.

“First class and business class can pay more but the perspective needs to be that even those in economy are part of the top 5% that are contributing to aviation emissions,” said Meinshausen.

So is flying always frivolous? Greta Thunberg certainly thinks so. In 2019 the climate activist famously took a 32-hour train ride to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos and sailed two weeks across the Atlantic to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Many argued the high seas commute was a waste of time, but by 2022 standards, Thunberg not only beat airport check-in times, but disembarked with all baggage in check.

This year, organisers of the WEF took a leaf out of her book, encouraging participants to train rather than fly to the conference. Consider it image control. Past forums had almost as many private planes as participants. But rest assured, these emissions were all offset.

World leader or back of the pack on a commercial plane, it’s all top tier. That said, there are plenty of reasons people need to fly — and individual accountability pales in comparison to what is required from governments and corporations to cut emissions.

The good news is that Qantas is doing much of the work for travellers, leading the charge on emissions reductions by ensuring some of its planes never leave the airport.

Do concerns about the environment impact your decision on whether to fly? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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