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Seattle teen tracks private jet emissions of the rich and famous

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Courtesy of Akash Shendure

A new website created by 17-year-old Akash Shendure is tracking the carbon emissions of private jets used by the rich and famous. Shendure created climatejets.org, which looks at emission disparities between the ultra-wealthy and everyday people. He talked to KUOW’s Angela King about his project.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Angela King: What compelled you to look at this issue in the first place?

Akash Shendure: When I saw data on how often prominent individuals fly, during the ElonJet news stories, I recognized that the emissions were not split among hundreds of people as in commercial flights, and I realized that the carbon emissions of private jets must be significantly greater than I had assumed. So, that prompted me to calculate the emissions precisely.

I understand your father is also a clean energy entrepreneur. Did that play a role in your interest in these types of things?

It definitely has played a role in my interest in the environment. I don't think I would know quite as much about the way carbon emissions are impacting our world if not for his role. But I also think that a lot of youth and a lot of my peers are equally interested in the climate because we all know that it's going to have such a great impact on our lives.

Private jet use is booming, and, while statistics vary, private jets reportedly create between 5 to 14 times more pollution per passenger than commercial planes. Why is that?

A private jet, because it's much smaller, is going to have less emissions overall than a normal airliner. But because an airliner carries hundreds of passengers, those emissions are split between each of the people on that flight. Whereas with a private jet, it's usually one or two or a few passengers flying alone. Because of that, the emissions per passenger end up being significantly higher for private jet flights.

Your website shows that the average U.S. citizen emits 15 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, but a private jet creates about two tons of CO2 per hour. That is a huge difference. Is this about trying to hold folks like Bill Gates accountable, or at least make them aware, especially since you said your generation is concerned about this and is inheriting a warmer climate?

I think that is definitely part of it. My hope is that this data can be a public source of data that people can interpret as they will. And I really want it to not only hold certain people accountable but also spread awareness of the disparity between carbon emissions of the ultra-rich and average Americans. I think that we're going to see an increase in that awareness, and potentially laws about that in the future.

We reached out to Bill Gates for comment. He ranked 13th on your list of private jet emissions. A spokesperson told us that Mr. Gates recognizes he has a high carbon footprint and has a responsibility to reduce his emissions. To do so he's doing things like buying sustainable jet fuel, and he funds efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the air. But separately, he's been quoted as calling his two private jets “guilty pleasures.” What do you think of his efforts to square these two issues?

I think it's commendable that he and others are using sustainable fuel and offsetting emissions and investing in climate technology, which is not true of most of the people on the list. That said, there is still a question of whether those private jet flights are necessary as they could still be making those investments without flying.

Who are some of the big names that stood out in your research?

Well, I saw Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg. They both put a lot of money into climate technology. I think they also are doing commendable things in the climate space. Some more conservative families like the Murdoch family, the DeVos family were up there as well.

Have you heard from any of the people you've tracked and if so, are they saying anything about your work?

I heard from a former affiliate of John Kerry, who talked to me about how he was concerned that I was overestimating the emissions because he knew that the family had sold their private jet. So, I took his name off temporarily. I’m going to recalculate based on that information. But other than that, I haven't heard from the people on the list. No cease-and-desist letters yet.

You got me thinking about 19-year-old Jack Sweeney, who tracked Elon Musk's jet on Twitter. He said that Musk offered him cash and a Tesla to stop, but you've not gotten any overtures like that?

No. And I think part of that is that there's no real message inherent in the data. I'm not ranking them myself. They are already ranking themselves by flying in private jets.

What's next for you? You're a high school senior. I'm sure colleges are chomping at the bit to have you attend their schools. But do you think you're going to pursue this kind of work professionally?

I think I'm going to go into physics research. My plan is to pursue physics. I definitely could see myself doing similar work like this in the future. And I also know that there are lots of subfields within physics that are very closely related to climate technology that I would be interested in pursuing.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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