Making extreme wealth extinct
By Max Lawson
In the week before the COP we released a report together with the Institute for European Environment Policy, (IEEP) with new figures on the carbon emissions of the world’s richest. The report was once again written by my brilliant former colleague at Oxfam, Tim Gore, who is now at IEEP and is based on analysis done together with the Stockholm Environment Insititute.
The study sought to look forward to 2030 and the levels of emissions from different income groups. We found that if the Paris commitments are met, which is a big if of course, then the middle classes globally will see their emissions reduce. It will still be far from enough, but a significant reduction would still happen.
In contrast, the world’s richest 1% (those earning more than $172,000 a year) are set to reduce by just 5% when they need to reduce by 97%. They are set to be on average emitting 30 times more than what is required to stop climate change by 2030 and will have seen their share of global emissions grow to 16% by then. That is worth pausing to take in. The worlds richest 1% will be responsible for a full 16% of all emissions by 2030.
Another fascinating recent study sought to dig deeper into what the super-rich spend their money on and how much carbon different types of spending emit. The study has searched the databases and public records to document billionaire’s vehicles, aircraft and yachts. It makes for some stomach-churning reading.
On average the billionaires they look at are emitting around 8000 tonnes per year, 3500 times their fair share in a world committed to no more than 1.5 degrees of heating.
Their worst offender they find is Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and owner of Chelsea football club:
‘Abramovich cruises the Mediterranean in his superyacht, named the Eclipse, which at 162.5 meters bow to stern is the second-biggest in the world, rivalling some cruise ships. And he hops the globe on a custom-designed Boeing 767, which boasts a 30-seat dining room. He takes shorter trips in his Gulfstream G650 jet, one of his two helicopters or the submarine on his yacht. ‘
The authors estimate his annual emissions at 33, 859 metric tonnes of CO2. This means he is nearly 15,000 times over the limit.
Lucas Chancel from the World Inequality Lab has also been crunching similar numbers on the role of the richest in the climate story. His recent paper goes beyond the individual consumption emissions of the rich to allocating national consumption emissions associated with capital investments to individuals within each country based on their share of asset ownership, derived from the latest wealth inequality datasets. He finds that emissions from investments make up an increasing share – up to 70% in 2019 – of the footprints of the world’s 1% highest emitters.
The worlds richest also use their power to influence too; George Monbiot described COP26 as the most exclusive of all climate summits. Delegates from developing nations have been unable to attend and participate, not least because of lack of vaccines. Over 500 fossil fuel lobbyists were granted access, more than the combined delegations of many of the poorest countries.
It is tempting given these revelations to look at climate specific solutions. There is definitely something in this; the most planet killing things, whether it is private jets or super yachts should simply be banned. Making them more expensive is unlikely to work, given the wealth of their owners, so they should simply not be allowed.
Chancel also recommends higher levels of tax on billionaires with extensive fossil fuel investments; a kind of carbon investment sin tax. I can see the attraction with such a move but ultimately I think it is the wrong one. If we tax billionaires more on their fossil fuel investments, why not more on their investments in the arms trade, or in supply chains that use slave labour for example?
I think what this amazing work shows us is something more profound; that if we are to survive as a species, we need radically fewer very rich people- period. We are living through an age of mass extinction caused by climate breakdown; but the actual extinction we need is of extreme wealth. The problem is not the Anthropocene so much as the Plutocene. As George Monbiot put it this week:
‘Preventing systemic environmental collapse means driving extreme wealth to extinction. It is not humanity as a whole the planet cannot afford. It’s the ultra rich.’
(This blog draws heavily on this one by Tim about this great paper and this amazing column by Monbiot– really worth reading both)
In recent months, Elon Musk has leapfrogged Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates to leap into the lead in the world’s richest man. He is now worth nearly $300 billion dollars, his fortune having increased over 1000% since March 2020.
He is very active on twitter and has a very loyal following. He is clearly not a very nice person either.
For an amazing few weeks recently a proposal in the US for a billionaire tax gained a lot of airtime, which was wonderful to see and a credit to the brilliant campaigning on this in the US by the Patriotic Millionaires and others. Musk opposed the proposed billionaire tax very vocally. He had a poll on twitter as to whether he should sell some of his stock to pay some tax in light of accusations of tax avoidance. This was dismissed as a stunt by
He then followed it up with this tweet last week. I don’t care who you are, I think it is bang out of order to say this to anyone. Perhaps the most disheartening thing is that he got over 300,000 likes.
Clearly many people have a lot of admiration for this man.
With a view to chipping away at that, if you can see your way to sharing this video of Elon Musk dancing as widely as possible that would be wonderful.
Have great weekends everyone (well to the extent you can having watched this sorry)
Max is the Head of Inequality Policy at Oxfam International & EQUALS Podcast co-host. He is also Chair of the global People’s Vaccine Alliance.
Featured image Credit: Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Leave a Reply