The great aviation race. How to get to Jet Zero by 2050
16 February 2023 | 2 minutes
It was an otherwise straightforward deal. A company founder in the US had called on Paul Jebely, Withers’ global head of aviation and marine, to advise on the purchase of a private jet. The aircraft would save the founder a significant amount of time while travelling between business and personal interests around the world.
As the legal team were kicking the tyres on the contract, however, the entrepreneur became concerned about the carbon footprint of private aviation. “After considering it further, the founder decided to walk away – even though it meant possibly losing a seven-figure deposit (which we ultimately avoided) – solely because of environmental and reputational concerns the founder had about owning a jet,” says Paul, who adds "that was a first for me but perhaps not the last."
With the cost of living rising and a global recession predicted, there will be public and political pressure for others to follow suit. Many well-known figures in business and entertainment have been criticised for using private jets, with a high-profile Twitter account tracking the movements of French billionaires attracting tens of thousands of followers.
Politicians appear to be responding, with the French transport minister calling for European-wide regulation of private jets and the leader of the Green Party for an outright ban.
Such proposals will be popular – however, Withers lawyers argue that they are not the answer to the aviation industry’s pledge to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Rather, private jet owners have an important role to play in decarbonising the total estimated 4 billion passenger journeys that are made each year1.
First, influential frequent flyers are in a position to demand improvements that will make operations more efficient. And second, those with private capital can make investments in sustainable fuels and prototypes that have the potential to get the industry to ‘jet zero’.
“Sustainability is a growing area of concern for people who rely on helicopters and private jets as a timesaving device,” says Toby Joy, a senior associate and qualified pilot who is based in London. “In the short term we are having an increasing number of conversations around ways to mitigate the carbon burn.”
Carbon offsetting schemes, in which passengers pay for trees to be planted, are one widely available option. Private jet owners are also in a position to choose sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which the industry says can cut carbon emissions by up to 80 per cent2.
At present, early adopters such as the Mercedes F1 team are using SAF made from recycled cooking oil and animal fats. However, more scalable alternatives are being explored, such as making SAF from agricultural waste or even from carbon dioxide3.
“What began as a bit of greenwashing has become quite tangible change in the industry,” says Jebely. “SAF is increasingly viable and increasingly sustainable – but the real story at the moment is the developments with manufacturers, who are making lighter and more efficient aircraft.”
Part of Paul’s role in the private aviation industry is to consult with manufacturers on his clients’ behalf, ensuring that what has been promised on paper (including efficiency claims) is a reality. He has been impressed by innovations in recent years that make new aircraft more sustainable and less costly to run. Such models are also more likely to hold their value.
“If you look at the history of aviation, it is a constant drive to get the next technological advancement,” says Toby Joy. “The first powered flight was in 1903, and within 70 years we had a supersonic airliner. Much development has come through privately owned, rather than state controlled, companies.”
The next big developments are likely to be focused on sustainability, which is where individuals with an interest in the sector can help. “Private capital has the potential to create change,” says Toby.
In one example, the philanthropists Brahman Vasudevan and Shanthi Kandiah have pledged £25 million to establish a sustainable aviation institute looking at everything from fuel and aircraft design, to infrastructure and operations.
And there are plenty of commercial opportunities. “There were some really interesting developments at the Farnborough International Airshow last year, from eVTOLs – electric vertical take off and landing vehicles that could replace helicopters for short-hop flights, to hydrogen-powered turboprop engines. Some of these companies will fail but if you back the right technology, the rewards are potentially huge. Just look at Tesla.”
One exciting client that the Withers tech team is supporting has come up with a way to transport hydrogen by airship. H2 Clipper has been founded to overcome one of the key barriers to hydrogen technology, which is distribution. “The company has designed an airship that is lifted by hydrogen, powered by hydrogen and can contain about 200 tonnes of liquid hydrogen,” says John Serio, an intellectual property partner in Withers’ Boston office who has helped H2 Clipper to patent its ideas.
The company is now focused on building a prototype, which it expects to move at speeds of 150-175 miles per hour. The airships will also require far less infrastructure on the ground than traditional craft such as ships. “At first the idea seemed a little farfetched, but since I learned more and heard about the kinds of clients who are interested, I very much believe that this is a gamechanger,” says John.
Jebely also sees possibilities in electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft – but points out that the technology is still in its infancy. “This is how the future will look but it’s not viable for any of our clients today.”
One very quick win, Paul believes, is to improve operations. “One way to make aviation more efficient right now is to stop planes from sitting on the runway with their engines running for up to an hour before take-off. NASA has come up with a system that makes air traffic control systems way more efficient. Where that’s been deployed it reduces emissions by 30 per cent, and of course it’s beneficial to people’s bottom lines.”
With even very wealthy people are unable to conceal their private jet movements, being able to point to such measures will also have a reputational benefit, Paul adds. “What I say to people is: if someone really wants to know you ultimately cannot hide that you own an aircraft…so own it.”