There’s no question that urgent action needs to be taken over the climate crisis.
The UN’s IPCC report revealed that the Earth will heat up by 3 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, unless humans step in over the next 12 years and attempt to reverse some of the damage they’ve inflicted.
If temperatures increase by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the Earth would have gone past the point of no return.
However, some people are less willing to make significant lifestyle changes, like adopting vegetarianism or shopping second-hand, when the world’s wealthiest do not introduce changes to their own lives – despite having a much more direct impact on carbon emissions.
Who counts as the ‘wealthy’?
Everyone in a major economy contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than those in less developed nations.
German think-tank Hot or Cool Institute claims carbon footprints from people’s lifestyles need to be reduced by 91 to 95% by 2050 in high-income countries compared to just 76% in lower-middle income nations.
For instance, in Canada, the average carbon lifestyle footprint is more than six times the size of someone in Indonesia.
Even though the UK’s average carbon footprint is below the average for both the EU and China, according to a report from Carbon Brief last year, it is still above the global average.
The US has the highest number of “ultra-high net worth individuals”. The threshold is net wealth of $4.4 million (£3.23 million) to be among the richest 1% in the States, but this varies from country to country – in Monaco, a person need $7.9 million (£5.81 million) to be one of the top 1%.
Statista figures shows it’s usually the major economy countries which have the highest number of billionaires in total, as the US, the UK, India, Germany and the region of Greater China all top the list.
So just how responsible are the rich for the climate crisis?
A report from Oxfam International published in January found that the richest 1% of the world’s population could use up to 30 times more carbon than the world’s poorest 50%.
As carbon emissions are incredibly detrimental to the Earth’s climate, this is a significant problem.
Why are the wealthy so bad for the planet?
Billionaires tend to frequently enjoy private jets, luxury yachts and eating too much meat. These habits need to be addressed across the G20 countries to make a difference to climate change.
As food, housing and transport contributes to about 80% of total lifestyle carbon footprints, the wealthy’s use of travel is a significant factor.
Fossil fuels are used in jets, meaning significant CO2 is produced, trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere which means the whole planet gets warming.
Head of policy at Oxfam International, Tim Gore, told The Guardian: “The global carbon budget has been squandered to expand the consumption of the already rich, rather than to improve humanity.
“A finite amount of carbon can be added to the atmosphere if we want to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis. We need to ensure that carbon is used for the best.”
Why is it so important to get them to change their behaviour?
The poor around the world will continue to be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis unless action is taken by those who use more than their fair share of the remaining carbon budget.
As Caroline Lucas, former leader of the Green Party, told The Guardian last year: “This is a stark illustration of the deep injustice at the heart of the climate crisis.
“Those who are so much more exposed and vulnerable to its impacts have done least to contribute to the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing it.
“The UK has a moral responsibility here, not only because of its disproportionately high historic emissions, but as hosts of next year’s critical UN climate summit. We need to go further and faster in reaching net zero.”
A paper from Nature Communications also explained that the wealthy are key to changing the climate crisis, because “highly affluent consumers drive biophysical resources use through direct consumption”, and by driving consumption norms.
Did the pandemic worsen this divide?
The pandemic saw a minor dip in carbon emissions around the world.
Lockdowns around the world meant borders were shut and people were ordered to stay at home – yet the wealthy continued to travel.
As the Oxfam report explained: “Worldwide sales of private jets soared when commercial travel was banned.”
Billionaires’ wealth also increased by $3.9 trillion (£2.86 trillion) between March 18 and December 31 last year, while Oxfam believes those living on less that $5.50 (£4.04) a day rose to around 500 million during the same period.
When people get richer, they also consume more energy, according to a paper from University of Leeds researchers, published in Nature Energy.
It found that as people get wealthier they spend more on transportation and energy-intensive, luxury goods.
Oxfam also noted: ”In country after country it is the richest who are least affected by the pandemic, and are the quickest to see their fortunes recover.
“They also remain the greatest emitters of carbon, and the greatest drivers of climate breakdown.
“It took only nine months for billionaire fortunes to climb back to pre-pandemic highs. It will take the world’s poorest over a decade.”
The most infamous examples
Kim Kardashian-West sparked outrage when she flew her friends and family overseas to the private island of Tahiti for her 40th in the midst of the pandemic, while Madonna flew from the UK to New York after testing positive for Covid antibodies.
Amazon chief Jeff Bezos flew a rocket into space this year just for 10 minutes. He is believed to be the richest person in the world.
However, it’s not just the wealthy in the public eye who are responsible for impacting the climate crisis.
Those on the boards of fossil fuel companies can exert significant influence on governments by threatening to withdraw crucial funding, stopping world leaders from moving away from greener options.
BloombergNEF found that state-owned energy companies make up 45% of total fossil fuel subsidies.
And more than 70% of global emissions come from just 100 companies according to the Carbon Majors Report from 2017.
The Trump administration, for instance, has acknowledged that climate change is real but governments around the world still prop up fossil fuel companies.
How governments could take action
Head of policy at Oxfam International, Gore, also told the Guardian: “This isn’t about people who have one family holiday a year, but people who are taking long-haul flights every month – it’s a fairly small group of people.”
A study from the Hot or Cool Institute suggest government should introduce measures to target “harmful” lifestyle options.
This could be through restricting or banning high-carbon consumer habits, such as private jets, or by ending customer loyalty programmes too.
Researchers should consider limiting the size of homes, supporting co-housing, capping the amount of space used for roads, and car parks and setting a higher minimum efficiency standard for appliances.
Government could also adopt “fair consumption space” so that the remaining carbon can be fairly distributed.