The Rich Are Using Private Jets for Short Commutes, Demonstrating the Importance of Sufficiency

Because efficiency without sufficiency is lost.

interior of an expensive private plane with leather seats and a fruit tray

Colin Anderson Productions / Getty Images

The Internet is agog because certain celebrities are apparently using their private jets for very short commutes. According to The Guardian, this is apparently quite common among the very wealthy. Someone named Kylie Jenner is coming in for particular approbation purportedly for using her big Bombardier for a 17-minute flight to supposedly beat traffic. Other sites note the plane may be repositioned and the map in The Guardian shows that the famous 17-minute flight was the second leg of a longer flight. But that doesn't change the carbon math of flying private, or that Jenner is alone—a lot of rich people are taking very short flights.

Without knowing it, all the people complaining about this are having a discussion about sufficiency—about what is enough and what is the right tool for a given job. We have often framed it with a choice between a bicycle and a car but now, apparently, we have to bring private jets into the discussion.

It's one of the few times that we have actually seen a discussion of sufficiency in the mainstream media, where many are questioning whether taking a 12-minute flight is appropriate behavior.

Jenner's jet also provides an object lesson in why chasing efficiency is pointless. Her Bombardier Global 7500 can go farther because it has the new GE Passport engines designed for "dependable reliability and improved fuel efficiency"—a fine example of how efficiency translates into range rather than reduced fuel consumption.

It's also an example of how "efficiency without sufficiency is lost"—my favorite phrase from Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute. The phrase sums up the message we've been sending over the last few years on Treehugger, where we note that making things more efficient is not enough; we have to ask ourselves what we really need. It's a subject dear to the heart of Lewis Akenji, the managing director of the Hot or Cool Institute and the lead author of "1.5 Degree Lifestyles: Targets and Options for Reducing Lifestyle Carbon Emissions" (covered on Treehugger here), which was the inspiration for my book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle."

Akenji recently wrote about the "(technology) efficiency paradox," where he said: "Too much of a good thing can kill you! The case of green technology clearly demonstrates the limits of (resource and energy) efficiency." It was written long before Jenner took flight, but the arguments are relevant. His first point addressed the question of electric cars:

"Efficiency is blind to the upper limits of consumption and emissions, and so we can keep improving our efficiency even as we transgress the planetary boundaries. There is no science-based scenario to support the political or popular contention that we can replace our entire car stock, or worse, everyone on the planet could have an efficient electric vehicle without climate collapse."

He links to a fascinating study, "Electric Vehicles: the future we make and the problem of unmaking it," which notes that "the contribution to emissions reduction per vehicle unit may be less than the public initially perceive since the important issue here is the lifecycle of the BEV and this is in no sense zero-emission." The full lifecycle includes the upfront carbon emissions from making the vehicle. The study concludes going electric isn't enough: There has also to be "a significant reduction in dependence on and individual ownership of powered vehicles, a radical reimagining of the nature of private conveyance and of public transportation."

I asked Akenji how he thought we would possibly resolve this when as he notes, the popular and political contention is electric cars for everyone. He tells Treehugger: "The obsessive promotion of EVs rests on the limited assumption that the only problem with our car culture is GHG emissions from their fossil fuel use. But this doesn’t consider the resources and biodiversity costs of car production and use; scientific analyses make clear that we simply do not have the resource or GHG budget to accommodate a simple change from fossil-fuelled to electric vehicles at current rates of private ownership."

Akenji adds: "Furthermore, car infrastructure (think, for example, roads, parking, gas stations) and maintenance takes up disproportionate amounts of physical space, administrative processes, and public finances—at the expense of other fundamental services that have been shown to better contribute towards our wellbeing. Congestion is costly, and cars remain one of the strongest markers of inequalities in our societies. There is no doubt, that as the climate crises and social tensions intensify, within the next decade most major cities and upcoming cities will adopt the shift to private car-free cities."

According to Akenji, change is already on its way. "The cascade has already begun: When London introduced the congestion charge, most mayors thought it was a joke; temporary bike lanes introduced by Berlin during the covid lockdown have become permanent; even before covid, Milan had started reinventing the city, turning over 250 thousand square feet of car parking into public spaces," says Akenji. "As co-benefits, these few examples have seen very positive responses and a measurable increase in wellbeing by citizens. We have no choice, cities planning otherwise are either not being forthcoming to their citizens or are simply uninformed on the science."

The trouble, of course, is that even with deadly heat waves hitting us in the face, nobody wants to face this. When I said much the same thing in a recent post, that we had to get rid of private cars in cities, the comments were, "Lloyd, usually you have interesting things to say, but then there are times like this when you flip your lid." But that is what the numbers say, both the thermometers and the disappearing carbon budgets.

Paging Stanley Jevons

Akenji's next point is another subject dear to this Treehugger's heart: the rebound effect or Jevons' Paradox.

The rebound effect shows that although there have been much welcome efficiency improvements in material and energy over the last several decades, the sheer increase in volumes of consumption have canceled out the efficiency gains. Our cars, TVs, fridges, etc. have gotten substantially more efficient than in the '70s, but we now also have more and bigger cars, more and bigger TVs, and more and bigger fridges.

This is controversial ground. As Passive House Accelerator Director Zack Semke wrote in his excellent articles on the rebound effect and Jevons, they are beloved of climate arsonists who claim that trying to improve efficiency is useless. Semke wrote:

The Jevons Paradox and its narratives are just too attractive to folks opposed to energy efficiency mandates to let the idea die, so a cottage industry of Jevons Paradox storytelling has emerged. That’s why you see Jevons crop up on the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, in the writings of the libertarian Cato Institute, and in the agenda of the Breakthrough Institute.

Semke rightly pointed out that fridges have generally not gotten bigger because they usually have to fit in standard openings. Others have noted the iPhone is the ultimate proof of how advances in efficiency have caused energy consumption to be reduced almost to zero while eliminating vast swathes of energy-consuming hardware from video recorders to stereo systems.

Akenji defends his argument and tells Treehugger:

"Quite the contrary; most leaders are making decisions today based on outdated templates from the 1990s when sustainability become a part of mainstream discourse in a way that could not be ignored politically. Sustainability strategies then were based on narrowly focused approaches such as pollution control at source and recycling—a very technical and technology driven affair that had not yet recognised the systemic nature of the challenge. We have enough evidence today that radical improvements in technology and resource efficiency have been walloped by astounding increase in materialism and consumption. Internalizing an understanding of rebound effects should be the very basis for policy design and action in a climate emergency and resource crises. It also presents grounds for designing actions which recognize that we have a bigger issue with distribution of wellbeing opportunities than with availability." 

Akenji concludes his post with a call for sufficiency, which I certainly cannot argue with.

There remains the question—as a climate emergency and biodiversity crises stare us in the face—of just when we (our elected officials, licensed businesses, and communities) can act on absolute reductions in energy throughput and material use. Sufficiency reframes the question to a very basic one: How much is enough and not how much can we get away with?

Akenji's last sentence about how much we can get away with seems particularly relevant to the story of the private jet. It is our regular question, too: How much is enough? What is sufficient to do the job? Using a Bombardier Global Traveler to get across town is surely an extreme example, but it does graphically demonstrate the importance of a sustainability mindset. We opened with a quote from Alexander and will close with one too:

"Any transition to a just and sustainable economy depends on a value-shift in the direction of sufficiency. Until that occurs, sustainability will remain a will-o’-the-wisp."