It started with an ill-advised photo posted by the most-followed woman on Instagram. Kylie Jenner, the model-turned-mogul, posted a picture with rapper and partner Travis Scott on a tarmac between two private jets with the caption, “you wanna take mine or yours?” The post unleashed a torrent of criticism that has only intensified thanks to a flight-tracking Twitter account that's put the rich's profligate emissions in the spotlight.
The comments on the photo — which have since been closed — called out Jenner, not only for her display of excessive wealth, but also the climate damage of private jet use. The firestorm was bolstered by the findings of Twitter account @CelebJets, which automatically tracks the movements of celebrity planes. The account revealed that Jenner routinely uses her private jet for trips that are under 15 minutes. She’s not alone, either; the account has also shown that celebrities including Floyd Mayweather, Kenny Chesney and Drake are members of the super-short-flight club.
The public outrage over the carbon emissions of the super rich has served as a case study for how new technology and publicly available data can be used for climate accountability. Jack Sweeney, the 19-year-old creator of @CelebJets and many other automated jet-tracking accounts (including the now-infamous @ElonJet), is pleased that his work has had an impact.
“Hopefully it makes people be more careful with their flights or … think more about traveling less or being more efficient,” Sweeney told Protocol.
While his accounts initially used available FAA information to track the departures, intended flight paths and landings of planes Sweeney thought were interesting, in May he adapted the trackers to include fuel use and carbon emissions as well. The estimates are based on the type of plane and how much fuel per hour it burns. He doesn’t have every plane model in there yet, but he’s planning to add more.
There are already companies looking to seize upon the opportunity that @CelebJets has opened up. Sweeney said at least one carbon offset company has reached out about using the trackers to integrate offset payments into celebrity jet travel.
This is a happy development for Sweeney, who pointed out that Bill Gates is already offsetting his private jet travel, and if he can do it, others can, too: “If … more and more people do it, then it should help,” he said.
It remains to be seen if the pressure will pay dividends for the climate. Jet travel is notoriously hard to decarbonize, and offsets come with all sorts of problems from both climate and land rights perspectives.
The scrutiny brought by Sweeney's trackers has rattled at least some private jet travelers, though they may be taking away the wrong message. Musk reached out to Sweeney personally last fall asking him to take down the popular @ElonJet account, offering him $5,000 to do so. That's not exactly a solution that would benefit the climate, though. While Jenner has yet to slide into Sweeney’s DMs, he said both billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban and sales mogul Grant Cardone have done so in recent months.
Sweeney's father works in the airline industry, and Sweeney has been tracking flights since childhood. But he might not be stopping at watching the rich take to the skies. Sweeney got access to data from MarineTraffic, a ship-tracking intelligence company, a few months ago. Though he hasn't yet done anything with it, others are already using similar data to track some billionaires' yachts, including the one owned by Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder.
Using data and technology to reveal private jet and yacht travel does more than create a social media ruckus. It highlights one of the key injustices of climate change: Rich people are responsible for a disproportionate sum of carbon pollution.
Research shows that a single flight across the U.S. in a Gulfstream IV private jet — a particularly popular model — emits twice the amount of carbon dioxide that the average American does in an entire year. A Bloomberg analysis published earlier this year also revealed that the top 1% of the world's highest earners emit a staggering 70 times more carbon dioxide than the bottom 50% combined. These dynamics often play out as background noise, but trackers like Sweeney's are ensuring they're a bigger part of the conversation about how the world should reduce emissions.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of the Washington Commanders' name. This story was updated July 22, 2022.