From Roman Abramovich’s yacht and Taylor Swift’s private jet to the sprawling warehouses of Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, the lifestyles and business interests of billionaires are baking the planet. The fury came fast when makeup mogul Kylie Jenner posted a photograph last July of her and her boyfriend Travis Scott flanked by two private jets and captioned “you wanna take mine or yours?”
Private Jet Conundrum
Recently, private jets owned by celebrities like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian have flown distances that could have been driven in a few hours. Their journeys spewed more carbon dioxide in a matter of minutes than the average Indian emits in a year. Flight data shows that one night in early December, the private jets of Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott took the same journey, landing at Van Nuys airport in California, US, just 5 hours apart. Even then, celebrity emissions in the air are a fraction of those at sea. Mega yachts — like Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s 162-meter-long boat that comes with two helipads and a swimming pool — emit several times more CO2 than most mansions, planes and limousines combined. “This is particularly sad,” said Beatriz Barros, a researcher at the University of Indiana who led the study, “because the island nations are also the ones who are more at risk of consequences of climate change like rising sea levels.”
Surging Carbon Pollution
The biggest inequalities in carbon emissions have for decades been between rich and poor countries. Now, inequalities within countries explain more of the gap between clean and dirty lifestyles. The top 1% of global earners — somebody earning a yearly salary of about €124,000 ($132,000) — are responsible for one-fifth of the growth in carbon pollution in the last 30 years. They live in cities from Miami to Mumbai. “The top 1% use basically a similar amount to the bottom 50% of humanity — and so obviously that, just in terms of scale, is a ridiculous proportion of the carbon budget,” said Anisha Nazareth, a scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute studying emissions inequality.
Support For Wealthy Lifestyle
Researchers have explored ways to fix this. By raising taxes, closing legal loopholes and cracking down on tax havens, policymakers could stop the wealthiest funding the carbon-intensive excesses of their lavish lifestyles. It would also free up more money to invest in clean energy infrastructure needed to stop the planet heating.
But policies to raise taxes often face fierce opposition — even from those who would benefit from them. “In reality, we see surprising support for the lifestyles of the very wealthy,” said Stefan Gössling, a professor at Lund University in Sweden. The burden of a flight tax, for instance, would mainly hit richer people — particularly business travelers. In the EU, half the spending on air travel comes from the richest 20%. In the US and Canada, the 19% of adults who take more than four flights a year account for 79% of the flights. Some scientists and politicians have called for a frequent flier levy, where each extra flight a person takes carries a higher cost.
A study published in the journal Nature in 2021 found rich people have a major role in slowing climate change as consumers, investors, role models, organizational participants and citizens. That could mean taking savings out of banks that lend to fossil fuel companies, campaigning for public transport at a local council meeting, or pressuring their company management to replace business flights with virtual meetings. But it also works the other way. Some of the world’s richest people and companies have poured money into lobbying against policies that threaten fossil fuels. For the richest, said Nazareth from the Stockholm Environment Institute, “a bigger problem is really the way they exert political influence through campaign donations — and influence in general on the lifestyles of everybody else.”
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