The Mercedes Benz G-Wagon became the unofficial “new money” emblem of flashing wealth. The symbol of expensive and high-maintenance lifestyle.
Image by Felix Mizioznikov via Shutterstock

“Over the past 25 years, the richest 10% of the global population has been responsible for more than half of all carbon emissions…
Rank injustice and inequality on this scale is a cancer.
If we don’t act now, this century may be our last.”

– Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations
Photo: Copyright © United Nations

Recently, there have been more and more articles even in mainstream press on how much we, as ordinary people, are responsible for the increasing carbon emission and what we can do about it. Today, plenty of calculators, analyses and ‘do it yourself’ articles are available to help us estimating the extent of our lifestyles’ effect on the greenhouse gas emission caused by humans and giving advice on how we can reduce it. There are many companies, celebrities and even governments who try to convince us to live a more ‘moderated’ carbon-emission-life, but there is a slight difficulty in it. As there is a minority of people who are, on the contrary, actually the vast majority on the level of emission, to put it delicately. Although they could help, but they do not seem to do so. What is more, they are often those who are emphasising the responsibility of ordinary citizens—it is true that we all bear responsibility for it, and indeed everything we do matters—but they are the ones who could do so much more about it. They are the super-rich people.

George Monbiot has earlier published an opinion piece in the online platform of The Guardian called “Make extreme wealth extinct: it’s the only way to avoid climate breakdown”, highlighting the fact that the richest 1% of the world’s population produce 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, double the emissions of the poorest 50%. On average, they emit more than 70 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year, 30 times more than we can afford to emit if we try to avoid exceeding the 1.5 degrees of global warming. While the emissions of the world’s middle classes are expected to be dropped dramatically over the next decade due to the general decarbonisation of our economies, the amount produced by the wealthiest people will hardly decrease at all, so they will be responsible for an even larger share of the total CO2.

Monbiot and relevant studies have also shown that a super-rich billionaire can produce more than 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide on average, that is 3,500 times the equitable share per capita that would allow the world to sustain the increase of the global average surface temperature below 1.5°C. In the case of billionaires, the main cause is their airplanes and yachts. One of the billionaires’ favourite toys, a superyacht—which is kept on constant standby—emits around 7,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

But if we take a closer look, even a so-called “climate champion” like Bill Gates, who does not have a yacht, has an estimated footprint 3,000 times larger than an average citizen of the world, mainly thanks to his collection of planes and helicopters. Moreover, Gates claims to be ‘buying green jet fuel’, but there is no such thing, it is just greenwashing. Currently, there is no ‘green’ or ‘sustainable’ jet fuel. If biofuels were widely used in airplanes, it would be an environmental disaster, since so much plant material would be needed for aviation purposes that mass production would require crops or plantations to replace food production or wild ecosystems—in addition, the carbon footprint of this direction would be enormous, causing even more serious problems.

According to some estimates, the average lifestyle consumption carbon footprint of someone in the richest 1% could be 175 times (or even higher) that of someone in the poorest 10%
Image by Tyler Olson via Shutterstock

If we consider individuals rather than industry, 10 percent of European citizens are responsible for 27 percent of the continent’s total pollution. This is more than the 50 percent with the least polluting lifestyles produce together—as published in The Conversation in 2020 by a researcher pair, Diana Ivanova and Richard Wood, from an English and a Norwegian university, describing the results of their study.

Ivanova and Wood went even further, looking at the expense patterns of 275,000 households in 26 European countries, and found that only 5% of the households in the European Union are living in a way to support the emission level targeted for 2030. 95 percent of European households are living a lifestyle that makes the targets unattainable.

At European level, the biggest polluters are also the super-rich, of course, who consume the most, but there are very few of them. On the other hand, thanks to the prosperity of Europe, there is also a larger group of people who are worthy to focus on—the upper middle class earning beyond €40,000 (and less then €85,000) net a year. For example, according to the German Economic Institute, anyone with a net monthly income of €4,560 or more was part of the top 5 percent, and with a monthly take-home salary of €7,190 you are in the top 1 percent of earners in Germany.

The level of environmental pollution is mostly related to consumption patterns here as well, more precisely, according to the researchers’ data, there is one common feature that stands out: the members of this group travel much more by air than others.

The opportunity to fly regularly is distributed very unevenly in Europe, and flights are mainly taken by those who also belong to the group of the biggest polluters. However, the authors argue that aviation is not in the focus of climate action because airlines that were almost bankrupted by the coronavirus epidemic were bailed out by European states, leaving the tax release for kerosene unchanged.

For groups having higher income, states practically promote travelling by air because they make it relatively cheap compared to other means of travelling.

Another common feature of the main polluters is their extensive level of car use. The situation is different here, because public charges on fuel and cars disproportionately affect the poorer classes, so any measure that raises these charges will in fact make life harder for poorer, less polluting people. Therefore, this would only be reasonable if they can be offered a good alternative, such as public transport.

As we are moving upwards on the economic hierarchy, pollution from cars rises by much greater leaps.

For the poorer classes, the car is often the only way to get to work or to take other necessary journeys, while for the richer people, car purchases that are difficult to justify and much more frequent car journeys are suddenly arising.

Researchers say that rule-makers should stop promoting luxurious flying and provide better solutions for those who are forced to get into cars. According to them, this can be achieved by improving infrastructure regarding cyclists and pedestrians, in addition to public transport.

At the same time, the fact that the emissions of groups belonging to the same income group can be very different across European countries indicates the complexity of the situation. For instance, in France and Denmark, the use of nuclear power—in case of the former—and renewable energy—in case of the latter—is so high that, all in all, even the rich cannot live in such a polluting way as in countries that rely on fossil fuels.

Both countries in the example also maintain very extensive and high-quality public services, including public transport, so that lower income groups do not necessarily drive.

Conclusion, or something like that
Unfortunately, the improving behaviour of the middle class and the responsible attitude of more and more people will not be enough for redemption, since the ‘carbon greed’ of the super-rich knows no limits: right now, space travelling is becoming their new hobby, which means that each of them will produce as much carbon dioxide in 10 minutes as 30 people emit in a year on average. The extremely rich people claim themselves to be wealth creators. But from an ecological point of view, they do not create wealth, on the contrary, they take it away from everyone else.

Eventually, one of the most important environmental measures is to levy taxes on the super-rich, to limit wealth tax, and above to tax behaviour, luxurious hobbies which are harmful to the planet’s health.

Here we may ask: should the prevention of systemic environmental collapse lead to the extinction of super-richness?

All in all, things are not quite so simple always as black and white, but as it is not humanity as a whole that the planet cannot afford but the ‘carbon greed’ lifestyle, or the people who represent this lifestyle, the super-rich.