https://www.newsweek.com/-By Jess Thomson
A stock image of pollution being belched into the atmosphere. It’s not just billionaires that are having a drastic environmental impact, as corporations in polluting industries are also responsible for large-scale carbon emissions. iStock / Getty Images Plus
The environment would be a lot better off if we had no billionaires, research has shown.
A report released on November 6 by international charity Oxfam has shown that the investments of 125 billionaires around the world emit a collective 393 million tonnes of CO2 each year.
This makes each of the billionaires about one million times more polluting than 90 percent of humanity, releasing an average of approximately 3 million tonnes of CO2 per person, compared to 2.76 tonnes of CO2 per regular individual.
There are around 2,668 billionaires in the world today, according to Forbes, so the numbers would likely be much higher if the report had access to their investment data too.
The 125 billionaires studied in the report invest a collective $2.4 trillion in 183 companies from polluting industries such as fossil fuels and cement. The study also found that only a single billionaire in the sample of 125 had investments in a renewable energy company.
These calculations only take into account the polluting impact of the billionaires’ investments, not any of the carbon emissions from their often lavish private lives.
“Everything about billionaires is damaging to the environment,” Beatriz Barros, a gender and environmental justice researcher at Indiana University, and an external reviewer of the report, told Newsweek.
“Billionaires’ lifestyles are incredibly carbon-intensive and, according to our research, transportation was the most detrimental activity. Yachts, private jets, helicopters, and several cars. Within these, yachts and private jets are the elements that, proportionally, emit more CO2 and are the more unnecessary—you can fly commercially at a fraction of the CO2/km and yachts are the ultimate gratuitous luxury.”
So, what would happen if the world had no billionaires at all?
“The global impact would be immense. Billionaires exert considerable influence over economies and markets, and have thus far locked the world into a high-carbon future by investing in these polluting industries,” Asfhaq Khalfan, the climate justice director at Oxfam, told Newsweek.
“The distribution of carbon emissions within society, and therefore the responsibility for climate breakdown, is incredibly unequal. In our sample, we found that just 125 billionaires are responsible for as many CO2 emissions as the entire country of France.”
The population of France as of 2021 was 67.5 million people.
Greenhouse gas emissions are directly linked to rising global temperatures and resultant climate change across the globe. CO2, methane and nitrous oxide, as well as a swath of other industrially-released gasses, trap heat within the Earth’s atmosphere. This then disrupts weather patterns and leads to increased rates of extreme weather events, as well as droughts and famines in more arid regions.
These gasses are primarily released by the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity or to power motor vehicles, but also from the livestock, fertilizer, construction, fashion and tech industries.
“Getting rid of the CO2 emissions of 2,668 billionaires would be way more significant than getting rid of the CO2 emissions of 2,668 average persons. We all need to do better at curbing our CO2 emissions, including billionaires. Currently they seem to believe that, because of their wealth and status, these efforts don’t apply to them,” Barros said.
One real-world solution to the disproportionate emissions of billionaires that Barros suggested is “carbon-shaming.”
“Their disproportionate carbon-intensive behavior needs to stop,” she said. “We need to keep drawing attention to this issue; people need to be informed and show their discontent. Public opinion should condemn these behaviors, thus targeting billionaires’ reputations.”
This has started happening to some extent, with celebrities like the Kardashians and Taylor Swift being called out for the excessive number of private jet journeys they make and other frivolous and environmentally costly endeavors.
“Another line of action is through taxation,” Barros said. “Taxing billionaires‘ wealth more adequately could curb the excessive accumulation of wealth that allows billionaires to own several private jets and 500 ft yachts, for example. In addition, it would generate funds that governments could apply to eco-friendly solutions, like expanding public transportation infrastructure.”
Wealth taxes on billionaires, and on their investments in polluting industries, would raise huge amounts of money to help the poorest people and countries deal with climate breakdown, Khalfan said.
“We cannot meet our Paris Agreement goals without radical changes from corporates and billionaires—and currently their actions fall far, far short of what is needed to stop catastrophic climate breakdown. We need policies that prioritize climate justice through a wealth and investments tax, greater reporting and transparency, and science-based climate targets,” he said.
It’s not just billionaires and celebrities that need to be regulated to create real climate impacts, however, as corporations in polluting industries are also responsible for huge amounts of carbon emissions.
“We [need to] urge governments to put in place regulations and policies that compel corporations to track and report on their emissions and set science-based climate targets with a clear road map—both short-term and long-term—to reducing emissions,” said Khalfan.
“This should be done while ensuring a just transition from the extractive, carbon intensive economy by securing the future livelihoods of workers and the affected communities.”