A wealthy executive I interviewed for my book a couple of years ago told me that his kids had attended Lakeside, a Seattle school where the Gateses, the Bezoses, and other local tech royalty sent their children. “Someone flew a private jet to one of the soccer games,” he said.
That “someone” is likely on the radar, so to speak, of 17-year-old Akash Shendure. Not long ago, inspired by a story about Twitter blocking an account that tracked and tweeted the location of CEO Elon Musk’s private jet, the tech-savvy young Seattleite set up his own website using publicly available information to track private jets—but for a different purpose.
Shendure wanted to draw attention to the climate footprints of America’s richest individuals and their outsized travel habits. His project, ClimateJets.org, calls out those people and families by name, based on his calculations of the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from their private jet excursions.
Studies and reports over the past few years have increasingly highlighted the environmental sins of a global “polluting elite”—not only the uber-wealthy moguls who grab headlines or the top 1 percent, who are responsible for an estimated 16 percent of global carbon emissions, but even mere 10 percenters, many of whom would view themselves as upper middle-class.
The Climate Inequality Report 2023 notes that almost half of humanity’s carbon emissions are attributable to just 10 percent of the global population, while the top 1 percent of emitters “are responsible for more emissions than the entire bottom half of the world’s population.” (That’s on par with the distribution of income in the United States; according to the World Inequality Database, America’s top-earning 1 percent took in 19 percent of pre-tax national income in 2021, whereas the bottom-earning 50 percent of the population took in less than 14 percent of the income.)
A big chunk of emissions comes from air travel. Even members of an upper-middle-class family that jets around on domestic airlines a few times a year are going to blow way past America’s per capita emissions average, which, according to Shendure’s website, is about 17 tons of carbon dioxide per year. But the moguls who fly private have radically bigger footprints. At the top of his list is Thomas Siebel, the billionaire CEO of C3.ai, with 5,126 tons of emissions per year (I converted from metric tons)—roughly 300 times average. And that’s just flying. It doesn’t count any of Siebel’s other activities.
You’ll find lots of household names on Shendure’s list. In the second and third slots are the Murdochs and the Devoses. Sam Zell, Mike Bloomberg, and investor Robert Smith—the richest Black man in America—are also high up on there. As are, ahem, Pitbull—and Bill Gates, who published a 2021 book titled How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. (He might start by downgrading to first class.) The private jetters include lots of celebrities: Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift, Tony Robbins, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay-Z, Floyd Mayweather, Kim Kardashian, and on and on. Shendure has a page breaking down the flight stats for each of these mega-emitters.
A caveat, though: These numbers haven’t been independently vetted, and like any researcher, Shendure had to make certain assumptions—such as the source of fuel for a given jet. (He discusses his methodology here.) Representatives for Gates and for Amazon‘s Jeff Bezos, when contacted about ClimateJets by the New York Times’ Climate Forward newsletter, claimed both men use “sustainable” jet fuel.
Which is somewhat encouraging. But the much-hyped sustainable aviation fuels, which are produced from waste products and have far lower life-cycle emissions, remain way more expensive than conventional fuels and are rarely used—they are projected to make up only 5 percent of the global jet fuel market by 2030. To truly slash travel emissions, environmentalists say, the solution is obvious: fly less. (And enough with the superyachts.)
To ease their consciences and/or burnish their images—corporations and wealthy individuals such as Gates and Bezos also buy and tout carbon offsets. But one has to be wary about such things. A recent investigation by the Guardian and two other journalism outfits determined that “the forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier and used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other big corporations are largely worthless and could make global heating worse.”
It seems we’re going to be needing a lot more clever kids like Akash Shendure to keep the kajillionaires honest—and the rest of us on our toes.