Research Says the Super-Wealthy are Driving Climate Catastrophe

We need swift and urgent action because it is already too late!

In a world where the wealthiest are lauded for their assets amassed and put on magazine covers that announce, “The World’s Richest People”, there is something else we don’t talk about enough… How the lifestyles of the rich and famous are accelerating climate catastrophe and killing the planet. 

According to research by global organisation Oxfam, 125 of the world’s richest billionaires emit over a million times more carbon than the average person. “The annual carbon footprint of the investments of just 125 of the world’s richest billionaires in our sample is equivalent to the carbon emissions of France, a nation of 67 million people,” says the report. “This represents an average of 3.1 million tonnes per billionaire, which is over one million times higher than 2.76 tonnes—the average for someone in the bottom 90% of humanity.”

The average person’s carbon footprint is around 4.7 tonnes of CO2 per year. The average carbon footprint of just 125 billionaires is about 3 million tonnes of CO2 per year. It has been reported that the world’s richest people’s carbon footprint is about one million times that of an average person’s. 

The super-wealthy live a lifestyle that includes mansions, private jets, and yachts (and, sometimes, space travel!), all of which are carbon-hungry, unsustainable choices. 

Private planes are up to 14 times more polluting, per passenger, than commercial planes and 50 times more polluting than trains, according to a report by Transport & Environment. And artist Taylor Swift is the worst offender in this regard. According to YARD’s [Yale Application for Research Data] research, Taylor, who is not a billionaire yet, is the biggest celebrity CO2 polluter of 2022. Taylor’s plane took 170 flights in the first 200 days of 2022 alone, releasing 8,294 tonnes of carbon emissions.

Billionaires Bill Gates and Warren Buffet on a private jet. Image: Courtesy X [former Twitter].
Artist Taylor Swift, who is not a billionaire as yet, was evaluated to be the
biggest celebrity CO2 polluter of 2022, according to YARD's research.

And then, there are the boats.

According to environmental platform EcoWatch, a superyacht is “by far the worst asset to own from an environmental standpoint”. “Worldwide, superyachts pollute as much as entire nations: the 300 biggest boats alone emit 315,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, based on their likely usage,” writes Joe Fassler on The New York Times. For example, the yacht owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich—who is the highest polluting billionaire, and built a fortune off of trading gas and oil—was responsible for 22,440 metric tonnes of carbon emissions according to a study in 2021. This was the same as the emissions released by over 4,800 gasoline cars driving for a year in the US.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich is the highest polluting billionaire.
Roman Abramovich's superyacht, Eclipse.

And even though the devastation caused by superyachts is staggering, the demand for them is only increasing. 

Many of the ultra-wealthy sought to purchase yachts and private jets during the pandemic as an alternative to flying commercially. Boat International’s Global Order Book 2022 edition found a 25 percent increase in the number of new yachts ordered to be built, marking a third year of consistent growth with more than 1,000 boats. Other figures reveal that 887 superyachts were sold in 2021, an increase of more than 75 percent compared with the previous year. 

“We are facing dangerous climate change events, such as severe hurricanes, flash floods, and wildfires because billionaires are making climate change rapidly worse. 125 of the world’s richest billionaires invest so much in polluting industries that they are responsible for emitting an average of 3 million carbon tonnes a year. The more they invest in fossil fuels, the more they protect the use of them, no matter how much the rest of the world suffers in response.”

—Oxfam Report

Emissions from billionaire lifestyles, including their private jets and yachts, are thousands of times the average person’s, which is itself unacceptable and unsustainable. But if we include emissions from their investments, then their carbon emissions are over a million times higher. “Our analysis also found billionaires had an average of 14% of their investments in polluting industries, such as fossil fuels and materials like cement, and only one billionaire in the sample had investments in a renewable energy company.” says Oxfam. “Investments billionaires make help shape the future of our economy, for example, by backing high carbon infrastructure, locking in high emissions for decades to come. Our study found that if the billionaires in the sample moved their investments to a fund with stronger environmental and social standards, it could reduce the intensity of their emissions by up to four times,” it adds.

Business magnate Elon Musk took 171 private flights in 2022,
which amounted to 132 times the total annual footprint of the average US resident that year.

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report from the UN has revealed that Earth will heat up by 3-degrees-Celsius by the end of the century, unless we start making immediate and uncompromising shifts. And if we don’t limit Earth’s warming to 1.5-degrees-Celsius above preindustrial temperatures by the early 2030s, we will cause irreversible damage that will lead to extreme heat waves, natural calamities, melting ice and rising sea levels, famines, infectious diseases…and mass deaths.  

What this means is that each person’s carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tonnes. And the average billionaire must reduce their carbon footprint by nearly 98 percent.

American billionaire Jeff Bezos's 10-minute space flight in 2021 emitted a
lifetime's worth of carbon pollution, according to the World Inequality Report .

“It’s now or never, if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C. Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, it will be impossible,” says Jim Skea, a co-chair of the working group behind the IPCC report. To meet this target, Oxfam says we will require profound changes to economies worldwide and dramatic changes in public policy. Experts suggest levying much higher taxes on high-carbon goods and habits such as private jets and yachts. Similarly, any investments in new fossil fuel extraction and use in highly polluting industries should be banned or, at least, strictly regulated. At the same time, governments should give corporates science-based targets to reduce carbon emissions to within the 1.5°C limit.

“Governments should tax wealth in order to reduce the numbers of very rich people in our society and their power,” says Oxfam. “This will help to dramatically reduce the cumulative emissions of the richest and raise billions of dollars that can be used to help countries cope with the brutal impacts of climate breakdown and the losses and damages incurred. In addition to greater general taxation of the richest, additional, steep rates of top-up taxation should be implemented on wealth generated from polluting industries.”

We are past the stage of replacing our plastic toothbrushes with bamboo ones. 

We have run out of time. And this is a matter of life and death.

In the words of  Greta Thunberg, “Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire.” 

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