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The Carbon Footprint of the Mega-Rich

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What is the carbon footprint of the world's wealthiest one percent?

What is the carbon footprint of the world's wealthiest one percent?

National governments have been prompted, many of them reluctantly, to take steps to reduce carbon emissions. Overlooked in all the meetings and accords are the actions and lifestyles of the super-rich. The fossil fuels burned to keep their yachts, private jets, and mansions going dwarf the carbon footprint of ordinary people.

The carbon footprint is “the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to the consumption of fossil fuels by a particular person, group, etc.”

— Dictionary.com

Oxfam Inequality Study

In 2015, Oxfam released a report that revealed the “Extreme Carbon Inequality” among the various strata of the world’s people.

Commenting on the report, the United Nations University noted that:

“the richest 10 percent of people produce half of the planet’s individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50 percent — about 3.5 billion people — contribute only 10 percent. Yet those same 3.5 billion people are ‘living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change,’ according to the report.”

Yet, if we parse those numbers further, even more shocking inequality emerges. 10 percent of the wealthiest 10 percent, the so-called one-percenters, produce carbon emissions 175 times greater than someone in the bottom 10 percent.

40 percent of these carbon hogs live in the United States, 20 percent in the European Union, and 10 percent in China.

Yachts are ecologically irresponsible.

Yachts are ecologically irresponsible.

Lifestyles of the Rich

Yachts

The mega-rich accumulate very expensive toys that emit carbon. The luxury yacht is a huge prestige symbol. They are priced in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but their ecological cost is horrible.

Ben Proctor writes about yachting and he calculates that “a yacht of 70 metres will consume about 500 litres of diesel an hour when the engines are running but not moving.” But, a 70-metre yacht is for the wannabe super-rich. Welcome to the world of the monster yachts.

Khalifa Al Nahyan is President of the United Arab Emirates. His yacht, Project Azzam, measures 180 metres and cost $600 million. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich potters about in the 162-metre long Eclipse. More modest is movie director Stephen Spielberg’s Seven Seas, which is only 86 metres long and priced at $200 million.

Planes

Private planes are also must-have items for plutocrats. Joseph Lau, a Hong Kong property billionaire, sets the bar high by owning a Boeing 747-8. When topped up at the gas pump it carries 63,034 U.S. gallons (238,610 litres), enough to travel 8,000 miles (15,000 km). By the way, Lau is a convicted felon with resonates with a quote from Honoré de Balzac (see below).

Lesser mortals, such as rapper Drake, must make do with a Boeing 737, which consumes the same amount of fossil fuel on a full tank “as a small African town might use in a year” (George Monbiot, The Guardian).

The Royal Family

Britain’s royal family advocates for environmental concerns but doesn’t always practice what it preaches. CNN reports “In 2019 its (the royal family’s) CO2 emission total for business travel was 3,344 tonnes.” That’s an increase of 98 percent over the previous year.

In addition, the royal housing rivals that of even the most extravagant tycoon. The Queen owns among other properties:

  • Buckingham Palace – 775 rooms;
  • Balmoral Castle – 52 bedrooms;
  • Sandringham House – 20,000-acre estate;
  • Windsor Castle – 1,000 rooms.

Imagine the heating bills.

The Crime of Ecocide

In translation, Honoré de Balzac wrote “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been found out, because it was properly executed.”

Lawyer Polly Higgins worked tirelessly, until her death in April 2019, to make the causing of serious damage to the environment an international crime called ecocide. George Monbiot in The Guardian puts forward the suggestion that the “very wealthy, almost as a matter of definition, are committing ecocide.”

Corporations and governments have been found guilty of crimes against the environment. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill of April 2010 has cost the company at least $65 billion in legal settlements and clean up expenses. Shell Oil was forced to accept full responsibility for oil pipeline spills in Nigeria in 2008 and pay compensation.

But, can an individual be charged with ecocide because she or he has a carbon footprint 10 times greater than the average person?

"Ecocide is the extensive damage, destruction, or loss of ecosystem of a given territory . . . "

"Ecocide is the extensive damage, destruction, or loss of ecosystem of a given territory . . . "

Ecocide is the extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.

— Polly Higgins

Bonus Factoids

  • The Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact has crunched some numbers about super-rich households. The findings are that a family of two with assets of $1 million over and above their property value has a carbon footprint of 129 tonnes of CO2 a year. This is about 10 times bigger than the global average.
  • In July 2019, Goggle convened a climate change conference at the Vendura Resort and Spa in Sicily. A-list luminaries such as Prince Harry, Katy Perry, Mark Zuckerberg, Orlando Bloom, and Bill Gates were among the attendees. Barbara Ellen reports for The Guardian that “A total of 114 private jets ferried the celebrities to Italy, releasing hundreds of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.”
  • Along with great wealth goes great spending and resource consumption, which, inevitably, leads to assaults on the environment. The Belgian philosopher Ingrid Robeys has suggested a solution to this that she calls limitarianism. Her idea is that just as a poverty line is recognized so too a wealth line should be accepted and anything above that set level should be taxed away. This is a heresy in today’s capitalist-dominated world.
  • The Sultan of Brunei has a palace with 1,788 rooms, a collection of more than 7,000 high-performance cars, and a Boeing 747.

Sources

  • “The World’s Richest People Emit the Most Carbon.” Jess Colarossi, Our World, December 5, 2015.
  • “Emissions Inequality: There Is a Gulf Between Global Rich and Poor.” Nicholas Beuret, The Conservation, March 28, 2019.
  • “What Does it Cost to Run a Super Yacht?” Ben Proctor, workonasuperyacht.co.org, January 3, 2015.
  • “Britain’s Royal Family Doubles Carbon Emissions from Travel.” Bianca Britton, CNN, June 25, 2019.
  • “These Are All of Queen Elizabeth’s Homes.” Leah Silverman, Town and Country, December 12, 2017.
  • “It’s Easy to Mock Eco-Celebs.” Barbara Ellen, The Guardian, August 3, 2019.
  • “For the Sake of Life on Earth, We Must Put a Limit on Wealth.” George Monbiot, The Guardian, September 19, 2019.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on September 20, 2019:

Thanks Tessa, but I'm convinced the powers that be will only tinker with the edges of the issues. The people who will suffer the most are those who are least responsible for the climate catastrophe.

Tessa Schlesinger on September 20, 2019:

Excellent article. I'll share this on my various streams. All good for climate emergency week.