Don’t pitch jets against pets in the heating up climate debate

The problem is that private aviation serves a handful of very wealthy people, while pets bring people of all backgrounds joy and companionship. (AFP)
The problem is that private aviation serves a handful of very wealthy people, while pets bring people of all backgrounds joy and companionship. (AFP)


The CEO of private-aircraft operator Luxaviation Group, Patrick Hansen, defended his industry's environmental record by comparing the carbon emission of one of his company's customers to that of three dogs in a year. However, the comparison has been criticized as unequa

If you’re going to try and defend your industry’s carbon emissions, you’d do well not to aim at people’s beloved pets. But that’s exactly what Patrick Hansen, CEO of private-aircraft operator Luxaviation Group, did at the Financial Times’s Business of Luxury summit. Defending his industry’s environmental record, he explained that one of his company’s customers produced the same amount of CO2 flying privately as three dogs did in a year.

The fight against climate change is going to involve some difficult choices, but is this really one of them? Luxaviation told me that its fleet of business jets emitted 150,000 tons of CO2 in 2022, flying 67,000 passengers—giving an annual average of just over two tons of CO2 per person. But some of those passengers were repeat fliers. So he’s equating a year owning three dogs or, to make it simpler, three years of dog ownership for a single seat on one journey. These things don’t feel equal.

The Luxembourg-based company has roughly 45,000 unique clients, so the carbon emission per customer is more like 3.3 tons. Just over half of its clients take more than two private-jet flights a year and about 9% take more than five. Their carbon footprint will be much higher—five flights would give you an estimated annual carbon footprint of more than 11 tons; using the pet analogy, that’s the equivalent of the yearly emissions of 10 cats and 10 dogs.

Now, about those pets. Everything we do has a carbon cost and our furry companions are no different. Mike Berners-Lee, a carbon-footprinting expert, calculated the emissions of pet ownership in How Bad Are Bananas? He came up with 310kg of CO2-equivalent (a measure that accounts for other greenhouse gasses as well as carbon dioxide) for an average-sized cat per year and 770kg CO2e for an average dog.

Most of your dog’s emissions come from her diet, which—as with our diet—has a carbon footprint from elements including methane pollution, refrigeration and transport. Meat, which makes up a greater proportion of our furry companions’ diet than humans’, has a much higher environmental impact than pretty much anything else and while there’s a lively debate about whether dogs could go vegan, cats are firmly carnivorous. As we take stock of the climate crisis, we need to look at everything—and the impact of pets is significant. Gregory Okin, a UCLA professor who wrote a 2017 paper on the environmental impact of pet food, told me that if American cats and dogs were their own country, it would be the fifth-largest meat consumer in the world. But there are ways to reduce these impacts. “The same things that apply to human diets apply to pet diets," says Okin. Ways to cut down on your pet’s emissions include not overfeeding and serving chicken or fish instead of beef; dry food also has a lower carbon footprint than wet. Insect-based foods are on the market, too.

Hansen does have a point that private jets account for just 2% of total aviation emissions, which works out to just 0.04% of the global total. The industry sees itself as playing an important role in the transition for the entire aviation sector. And, sure, if you calculate the emissions of all the pets in the world, then it does add up to a lot more than private jets.

The problem is that private aviation serves a handful of very wealthy people, while pets bring people of all backgrounds joy and companionship. To further put private aviation emissions into perspective, a 2021 study by research firm Transport & Environment found that, in just one hour, a single jet can emit 2 tons of CO2, about a quarter of the entire annual carbon footprint of the average EU resident.

The analysis also found that private jets are five-to-14 times more polluting per passenger than commercial planes, and 50 times more polluting than trains—and they’re often little more than an indulgence. Direct commercial flights exist for 72% of private-aviation flights, and high speed trains are also an option for most of the 10 most popular jet routes.

I’d say that the value per ton of carbon is much higher for pet ownership than for private jet use. Plus, if we stopped keeping pets tomorrow, our food systems would continue polluting—so I’d argue that’s what we should tackle first. If someone is concerned about the climate impact of pet food, they should also be taking a look at their own diets.

There’s one more thing. If we’re going to talk about carbon footprints, we need to talk about the emissions of the world’s wealthiest. The richest 10% of people are responsible for 52% of cumulative global emissions—and the 1% are responsible for a full 15%. In a statement, Hansen said: “While finger pointing is convenient, rarely that is being pointed at oneself…but it should."Maybe he should aim it at his own clientele. ©bloomberg

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