In 2018, Stefan Gössling and his team spent months scouring the social media profiles of some of the richest celebrities, from Paris Hilton to Oprah Winfrey. The tourism professor from Linnaeus University in Sweden was looking for evidence of how much they were flying.
The answer was a lot. Bill Gates, one of the world's most high-profile environmental advocates, took 59 flights in 2017, according to Gössling's calculations, covering a distance of around 343,500km (213,000 miles) – more than eight times around the world – generating more than 1,600 tonnes of greenhouse gases (that's equivalent to the average yearly emissions of 105 Americans).
Gössling's aim was to try to uncover the individual consumption levels of the mega rich, whose lifestyles are often shrouded in secrecy. His research coincided with a growing environmental movement, spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, which put a spotlight on personal accountability. Flying, one of the most carbon-intensive forms of consumption, became a symbol of this new accountability.
"The bigger your carbon footprint, the bigger your moral duty," Thunberg wrote in the Guardian in 2019.
The last few decades have shone a spotlight on global inequality. From the 2008 financial crisis, to the pandemic and the increasingly severe impacts of climate change – disruptive events tend to hit the poorest first and hardest.
Wealthy people set the tone on consumption to which everybody aspires. That's where the toxic effects are – Halina Szejnwald Brown
But in debates about how to solve inequality, over-consumption is often overlooked. "Each unit you overshoot means someone has to give [something] up," says Lewis Akenji, managing director of Hot or Cool Institute, a Berlin-based think tank. As a result, the outsized carbon footprints of society's richest entrench inequality and threaten the world's ability to stave off catastrophic climate change.
Who is the 1%?
When we think of "the rich", we might think of millionaires and billionaires with private jets and multiple mansions.
But an income of $38,000 (£27,500) is enough to put someone in the world's richest 10%, and $109,000 (£79,000) puts them in the top 1%.
(Source: Oxfam/Stockholm Environment Institute)
The statistics are startling. The world's wealthiest 10% were responsible for around half of global emissions in 2015, according to a 2020 report from Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute. The top 1% were responsible for 15% of emissions, nearly twice as much as the world's poorest 50%, who were responsible for just 7% and will feel the brunt of climate impacts despite bearing the least responsibility for causing them.
As the rich race through the remaining "carbon budget" – the amount of greenhouse gas it's possible to emit without pushing the world beyond 1.5C of warming by the end of the century – they "aren't making the space for the bottom 50% of the population to grow their emissions to the point where they're actually getting their needs met", says Emily Ghosh, a staff scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute.
Dario Kenner, the author of Carbon Inequality: The Role of the Richest in Climate Change, coined the term "polluter elite" to describe the wealthiest in society who invest extensively in fossil fuels, as well as having a strong climate impact from their high-carbon lifestyles. But while the polluter elite have a disproportionate impact, the world's wealthiest encompasses a much broader swathe of the population (see fact box: Who is the 1%?).
As things stand, most people in wealthy countries are consuming in ways that are accelerating climate catastrophe. When you take into account the emissions from imported goods, the average person in the UK emits 8.5 tonnes of carbon a year according to the Hot or Cool Institute, a figure that rises to 14.2 tonnes in Canada, the country with highest emissions among those the institute surveyed. In order to stay within 1.5C of warming, these figures need to come down dramatically to 0.7 tonnes per person by 2050.
The lifestyles of the very rich emit vastly more carbon than most (Credit: Getty Images)
Personal consumption is a thorny topic to address. It can quickly spiral into a well-worn debate about whether tackling climate change hinges on individual actions or systemic changes from governments and corporations.
"This is a false dichotomy," says Akenji. "Lifestyles don't exist in a vacuum, lifestyles are shaped by context." People live their lives within the mostly unsustainable political and economic systems that exist. But, without addressing the lifestyles of the wealthiest and most polluting in our societies, and the power they hold, we won't be able to address climate change.
"Wealthy people set the tone on consumption to which everybody aspires. That's where the toxic effects are," says Halina Szejnwald Brown, professor emerita of environmental science and policy at Clark University in the US.
Take aviation. "As soon as you fly, you belong to a global elite," says Gössling. More than 90% of people have never flown and just 1% of the world's population is responsible for 50% of emissions from flying. From the business elite crisscrossing the globe to the celebrities who have made travel part of their personal brands, their behaviour has helped make a high carbon lifestyle aspirational and desirable, says Gössling.
The SUVs that ferry around presidents, business leaders and celebrities – and increasingly middle class families in cities – have also become a status symbol despite their environmental impact. Making up 42% of global car sales in 2019, SUVs were the only sector to see emissions rise in 2020. The increase in people buying SUVs last year effectively cancelled out the climate gains of electric cars.
Bigger homes are another consumption hotspot. "Housing choices signify prestige and social status," writes Kimberly Nicholas, a sustainability scientist at Lund University, and her co-authors in a recent study on the role of wealthy people in driving climate change. In Europe, nearly 11% of emissions from housing came from the top 1% of emitters who own large – and often multiple – homes. (Read more about how gas-dependent countries are moving to zero-carbon heating)
It is not just the super-rich, but a broader swathe of wealthy people who emit much of the world's carbon (Credit: Getty Images)
The last few years, however, have seen social norms start to shift. In Sweden, Thunberg's activism helped inspire flygskam (the Swedish word for "flight shame"), a concept which led people to question how much they should be flying. The movement was linked to a 4% drop in the number of people flying from Sweden's airports in 2018 – a rare fall at a time when global passenger numbers were increasing.
Covid-19, which dramatically curtailed business travel, proved that video calls can replace in-person meetings. A Bloomberg survey found 84% of businesses plan to spend less on work travel post-pandemic.
From carbon markets to flight levies, economic interventions have the potential to drastically reduce the world's carbon emissions. Carbon Cost analyses some of the most powerful measures that could reshape the way we live, and our relationship with the planet and nature.
People have also started to consider the impact of their diets, leading to a boom in plant-based meat and dairy companies. "That's not coming from an edict or a government policy requirement," says Peter Newell, a professor of international relations at the University of Sussex. "That's just businesses seeing that's where the market is shifting."
But these changes are too gradual for the emergency we are in, says Kenner: "We're going past climate tipping points and species are going extinct." The issue is about speed, and for that government action is necessary, he says.
Targeted taxes on unsustainable behaviours, such as frequent flying and the overconsumption of meat, could help shift people to low carbon behaviours more quickly, says Newell, especially if there is a direct link between punishing polluting behaviour and investments that benefit many.
For example, proceeds from a frequent flyer tax could be invested into a cheaper or even free public transport system, and money from a "mansion tax" could be put towards insulating houses, bringing down levels of fuel poverty. The problem, though, is if the richest can simply absorb these costs and continue as before.
A more radical idea is a personal carbon allowance (PCA), where individuals are allocated an equal, tradable carbon allowance. If people want to emit more, they must buy the unwanted allowances of others. Versions of a PCA have been explored in Ireland, France, and California. In 2018, the UK government analysed its feasibility but concluded that a PCA would be too expensive, difficult to administer and unlikely to be accepted socially.
But in the context of a climate emergency and a pandemic, which has forced people to accept individual restrictions in the name of collective gain, it may be a policy worth reconsidering, according to a recent analysis.
A PCA is appealing on one level, says Newell, "because it makes it really clear what our per capita entitlements are." But, he adds, "it's an extreme version of individualising responsibility." It could end up unjustly penalising people who, for example, live in areas with few public transport options.
Another policy idea that's gaining popularity is "choice editing", where governments restrict carbon-intensive products – like private jets or mega yachts – from coming to market in the first place. The idea is low-carbon options, many of which already exist, will fill the gap.
Choice editing may sound radical but it's not new, says Akenji. The UK government, for example, uses choice editing on public safety grounds to ban the sale of guns or cars with no seatbelts. "Undoing unsustainable behaviours is a whole lot harder than preventing unsustainable products from coming to market in the first place," concluded an April report on behaviour change co-authored by Newell.
But even as time runs out for tackling climate change, many governments baulk at behaviour-change policies fearing they will be politically toxic to voters and unpalatable to the rich. The control that the wealthiest have over governments through lobbying and hefty donations gives them huge influence to dilute climate action and shape the choices available for everyone, says Kenner. "There's this other future, this alternative future, which is being denied on a daily basis," he says.
Policies such as choice editing or a Personal Carbon Allowance sound radical, but they have been trialled in a number of countries (Credit: Getty Images)
For all the policies that target the behaviour of consumers, ultimately, it's very hard to bring down emissions if the infrastructure isn't there for people to live low-carbon lives. "There's a lot that needs to go into building a more sustainable society and it's beyond just reducing private jets and luxury yachts," says Ghosh.
Some governments are making big changes. The Welsh government has suspended investment in new road building to meet emissions targets, the Netherlands has proposed cutting livestock numbers by 30% to reduce pollution and councils in UK cities such as Norwich and Exeter have started building energy-efficient social housing.
Others have targeted the role of advertising in driving unsustainable consumption. "People try to stake out their place in society by distinguishing themselves from those that are below them," says Brown, and advertising "builds its entire industry on this insecurity." In 2021, Amsterdam banned adverts for emissions-intensive products including SUVs and cheap short-haul flights, following in the footsteps of cities such as São Paulo and Chennai, which have banned or strictly limited billboard advertising.
"But this is really not enough," says Akenji. The pace is glacial and the world is running out of time. Governments need to overhaul infrastructure, he says, putting sustainability at the heart of policy. That means creating fast, extensive and affordable public transport networks; decarbonising electricity; building denser, well-insulated housing; banning the use of gas-powered cars; and considering measures such as a four-day working week.
Governments and the wealthy, with their outsized role in influencing social norms, can also help to change the narrative that climate action is all about loss of personal freedom and quality of life. "The sad thing about this is that things that have been shown to be more sustainable for the environment are almost always better for our own wellbeing and social cohesion," says Akenji.
Eating less meat has health benefits. Having fewer SUVs and gas-powered cars increases the air quality and reduces air pollution deaths. And a four-day working week could allow for a better work life balance, more family time and fewer child-care costs for parents.
"No one gets up in the morning and says, 'I'm going to wreck the environment'," says Akenji. People consume for many reasons: to meet their needs, to show affection, to feel good or because they feel pressured into it by advertising or social expectations.
Very few people ever really question their consumption, says Brown. "These are pretty deep questions: 'Who am I and what do I need for a good life?' I mean, how many people want to sit down and actually ask that question?"
Individual actions won't be enough to tackle climate change, says Akenji, and guilt and shame won't help. But choices and actions do matter. "I think we should all become political activists in one way or another," he says. "What we're going to do is very deliberately and decisively go after our governments and ask them to live up to their commitments."
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