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Lifestyle Carbon Emissions of the Rich and Famous

The wealthiest 10% of the world’s population are responsible for 50% of lifestyle-based carbon emissions. If they reduced their emissions to those of the average European citizen and the rest of us did nothing, it would amount to a global reduction in lifestyle emissions of roughly one third. So why aren’t we making this happen?

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the disparity between the lifestyles of the wealthy – for whom self isolation was undeniably more comfortable – and those on below-average incomes, isolating in small flats or shared houses, many suffering from poor mental health as a result of 'cabin fever'. Perhaps now more than ever, people are becoming acutely aware of wealth inequality, and yet there is little dialogue over the fact that with great wealth, comes a great environmental footprint. The narrative on climate change, plastic waste, and countless other environmental issues constantly tries to push the onus of social responsibility onto the consumer. Climate change is our fault because we bought the wrong fridge. Plastic waste? Shouldn’t have had that straw with your drink. There is a strong case for consumer responsibility and choice driving change (provided that large corporations are also held accountable). Given that the wealthiest 1% have an individual carbon footprint that is 75 times higher than an individual from the bottom 50%, surely it’s time for equitable responsibility for the contributions that individuals make towards the climate crisis.

The average European citizen has an annual carbon footprint of 8.2 tonnes. This is roughly the same as a four-hour flight in a private jet, and yet there are more than three million private jet flights per year across the globe. In fact, a recent study published by Yard, reveals the extent to which celebrities utilise private jets, with some individuals racking up thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions per year purely through private jet use. Often, carbon-offsetting is used to greenwash these massive carbon footprints, despite the fact that offsetting is unregulated and lacks any real scientific credibility. Clearly, these kinds of lifestyles are unsustainable, and allowing a tiny proportion of the population to blaze through the world’s remaining finite carbon budget before we either reach net zero or face an apocalyptic climate future, needs to stop. If the UK had introduced carbon taxes for the wealthy twenty years ago, it would have raised a total of £126 billion – funds that could be used to tackle climate change. So what would these taxes look like?

  • A carbon tax on flights, with a focus on first-class and business-class passengers whose seats come with a larger carbon footprint than those in economy.

  • A large carbon tax for private flights and a ban on private flights that cover distances of less than 500 kilometres.

  • A large increase in carbon taxes on high-emitting vehicles such as supercars.

  • A carbon tax for fossil fuel businesses that would ultimately make the oil industry unprofitable. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the massive wealth and resources of the oil industry would likely be redirected into green energy if those businesses want to survive.

All of these taxes would feed into a green revolution: grants for research on green technology, retrofitting of insulation and solar panels to houses, electric public transport, ecological restoration of valuable carbon sinks. The potential is there, and the solutions are less complicated than we think. What we lack–and have always lacked–is the political will to make change happen. If we continue to treat economic growth rather than general wellbeing of individuals and the natural environment as the key measure of our success, the change that we need in order to have a future, is unlikely to ever be realised.


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