Richard Wilk is a distinguished professor and provost’s professor of anthropology on the Director of the Open Anthropology Institute at Indiana College. Beatriz Barros is a Ph.D. Candidate in anthropology at Indiana College. This story initially featured on The Dialog.
Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have been vying for the world’s richest particular person rating all yr after the previous’s wealth soared a staggering $160 billion in 2020, placing him briefly within the high spot.
Musk isn’t alone in seeing a big enhance in wealth throughout a yr of pandemic, recession and demise. Altogether, the world’s billionaires noticed their wealth surge over $1.9 trillion in 2020, in accordance with Forbes.
These are astronomical numbers, and it’s onerous to get one’s head round them with out some context. As anthropologists who examine power and client tradition, we wished to look at how all that wealth translated into consumption and the ensuing carbon footprint.
Strolling in a billionaire’s sneakers
We discovered that billionaires have carbon footprints that may be hundreds of instances larger than these of common People.
The rich personal yachts, planes, and a number of mansions, all of which contribute greenhouse gases to the ambiance. For instance, a superyacht with a everlasting crew, helicopter pad, submarines, and swimming pools emits about 7,020 tons of CO<sub>2</sub> a yr, in accordance with our calculations, making it by the far worst asset to personal from an environmental standpoint. Transportation and actual property make up the lion’s share of most individuals’s carbon footprint, so we centered on calculating these classes for every billionaire.
To select a pattern of billionaires, we began with the 2020 Forbes Checklist of two,095 billionaires. A random or representatives pattern of billionaire carbon footprints is unattainable as a result of most rich individuals draw back from publicity, so we needed to deal with these whose consumption is public information. This excluded many of the tremendous wealthy in Asia and the Center East.
We combed 82 databases of public data to doc billionaires’ homes, automobiles, plane, and yachts. After an exhaustive search, we began with 20 well-known billionaires whose possessions we have been capable of verify, whereas making an attempt to incorporate some variety in gender and geography. We have now submitted our paper for peer overview however plan to proceed including to our checklist.
We then used a variety of sources, such because the U.S. Power Data Administration and Carbon Footprint, to estimate the annual CO<sub>2</sub> emissions of every home, plane, automobile, and yacht. In some circumstances we needed to estimate the scale of homes from satellite tv for pc photographs or photographs and using personal plane and yachts by looking the favored press and drawing on different research. Our outcomes are based mostly on analyzing typical use of every asset given its measurement and every little thing else we might be taught.
We didn’t attempt to calculate every asset’s “embodied carbon” emissions—that’s, how a lot CO<sub>2</sub> is burned all through the provision chain in making the product—or the emissions produced by their household, family workers or entourage. We additionally didn’t embody the emissions of corporations of which they personal half or all, as a result of that may have added one other important diploma of complexity. For instance, we didn’t calculate the emissions of Tesla or Amazon when calculating Musk’s or Bezos’ footprints.
In different phrases, these are all seemingly conservative estimates of how a lot they emit.
Your carbon footprint
To get a way of perspective, let’s begin with the carbon footprint of the typical particular person.
Residents of the US, together with billionaires, emitted about 15 tons of CO<sub>2</sub> per particular person in 2018. The worldwide common footprint is smaller, at nearly 5 tons per particular person.
In distinction, the 20 individuals in our pattern contributed a mean of about 8,190 tons of CO<sub>2</sub> in 2018. However some produced much more greenhouse gases than others.
The jet-setting billionaire
Roman Abramovich, who made most of his $19 billion fortune buying and selling oil and gasoline, was the most important polluter on our checklist. Outdoors of Russia, he’s most likely greatest referred to as the headline-grabbing proprietor of London’s Chelsea Soccer Membership.
Abramovich cruises the Mediterranean in his superyacht, named the Eclipse, which at 162.5 meters bow to stern is the second-biggest on the planet, rivaling some cruise ships. And he hops the globe on a custom-designed Boeing 767, which boasts a 30-seat eating room. He takes shorter journeys in his Gulfstream G650 jet, one in every of his two helicopters or the submarine on his yacht.
He maintains houses in lots of nations, together with a mansion in London’s Kensington Park Gardens, a chateau in Cap D’Antibes in France and a 70-acre property in St. Barts that after belonged to David Rockefeller. In 2018, he left the UK and settled in Israel, the place he grew to become a twin citizen and purchased a house in 2020 for $64.5 million.
We estimate that he was accountable for at the least 33,859 metric tons of CO<sub>2</sub> emissions in 2018—greater than two-thirds from his yacht, which is at all times prepared to make use of at a second’s discover year-round.
Large mansions and personal jets
Invoice Gates, at the moment the world’s fourth-richest particular person with $124 billion, is a “modest” polluter—by billionaire requirements—and is typical of those that could not personal a large yacht however make up for it with personal jets.
Co-founder of Microsoft, he retired in 2020 to handle the Invoice and Melinda Gates Basis, the world’s largest charity, with an endowment of $50 billion.
Within the 1990s, Gates constructed Xanadu—named after the huge fictional property in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”—at a price of $127 million in Medina, Washington. The large house covers 6,131 sq. meters, with a 23-car storage, a 20-person cinema and 24 loos. He additionally owns at the least 5 different dwellings in Southern California, the San Juan Islands in Washington state, North Salem, New York, and New York Metropolis, in addition to a horse farm, 4 personal jets, a seaplane and “a group” of helicopters.
We estimated his annual footprint at 7,493 metric tons of carbon, principally from lots of flying.
The environmentally minded tech CEO
South African-born Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has a surprisingly low carbon footprint regardless of being the world’s second-richest particular person, with $177 billion—and he appears intent on setting an instance for different billionaires.
He doesn’t personal a superyacht and says he doesn’t even take holidays.
We calculated a comparatively modest carbon footprint for him in 2018, because of his eight homes and one personal jet. This yr, his carbon footprint can be even decrease as a result of in 2020 he bought all of his homes and promised to divest the remainder of his worldly possessions.
Whereas his private carbon footprint continues to be lots of of instances larger than that of a mean particular person, he demonstrates that the superrich nonetheless have decisions to make and may certainly decrease their environmental affect in the event that they so select.
His estimated footprint from the belongings we checked out was 2,084 tons in 2018.
The worth of naming and shaming
The purpose of our ongoing analysis is to get individuals to consider the environmental burden of wealth.
Whereas loads of analysis has proven that wealthy nations and rich individuals produce way over their share of greenhouse gasoline emissions, these research can really feel summary and educational, making it tougher to vary this conduct.
We imagine “shaming”—for lack of a greater phrase—superrich individuals for his or her energy-intensive spending habits can have an vital affect, revealing them as fashions of overconsumption that individuals shouldn’t emulate.
Newspapers, cities and native residents made an affect throughout the California droughts of 2014 and 2015 by “drought shaming” celebrities and others who have been losing water, seen in their regularly inexperienced lawns. And the Swedes got here up with a brand new time period—“flygskam” or flying disgrace—to boost consciousness in regards to the local weather affect of air journey.
Local weather specialists say that to have any hope of limiting international warming to 1.5 levels Celsius above preindustrial ranges, nations should minimize their emissions in half by 2030 and remove them by 2050.
Asking common People to undertake much less carbon-intensive life to realize this objective might be galling and ineffective when it might take about 550 of their lifetimes to equal the carbon footprint of the typical billionaire on our checklist.