Study: Personal Consumption Matters, Especially for the Very Rich

A new study finds that consumption drives emissions and the very rich consume a lot more.

wealthy neighborhood in florida with pools and waterfront property

Edwin Remsberg / Getty Images

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm was interviewed in the premiere edition of Cipher, the newsletter that climate journalist Amy Harder is producing for Bill Gates's Breakthrough Energy, described by Michael D'Estries in Treehugger earlier.

In the last minute of the video, Harder and Granholm discuss my favorite subject: carbon footprints. From the interview:

“I think that only focusing on individual responsibility is what the big polluters would want us to do. That is not the answer. The answer is, we must get policy and systemic change in place. Policy is the way you get systemic change,.. Me individually eating less meat is not going to do anything. And boy, wouldn’t they love for us all to be distracted on our individual recycling plans. It is not what we need. We need big change, and that big change happens with policy. So, if anybody wants to do something on an individual level, vote.”

Yes, once again, it is all the "big polluters" who are responsible, not the individuals. Harder writes that "although Granholm didn’t specify whom she meant by 'big polluters,'” she’s likely implying the fossil-fuel industry and goes on to link to a Mashable article that I have complained about before, most recently in "No, the Term Carbon Footprint Is Not a Sham."

Of course, Granholm is right that system change is critically important and so is voting. But so is individual responsibility, and even her diet. As I note in my recent book on the subject, "I vote every four years, but I eat three times a day."

Coincidentally, on September 30 a new study was released in the Nature Briefing titled "The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions." It concludes emissions are driven not by big polluters, but that "people with high socioeconomic status disproportionally affect energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions directly through their consumption and indirectly through their financial and social resources."

The study, led by Kristian Nielsen of Cambridge University, focused on individuals and families with high socioeconomic status (SES) "because they have generated many of the problems of fossil fuel dependence that affect the rest of humanity." The study looks at their power and influence, and suggests that they could actually "help shape the choices available to themselves and others." But first, the study has a look at their so-called carbon footprints.

High-SES starts with the top 1% of income globally, which they suggest is those earning more than $109,000 per year. This demographic responsible for 15% of the world's carbon emissions.

Then they look at the top 0.1%.

"Accurate analyses of emissions from the top 0.1% are scarce due to their under-representation in national and global analyses, in part because they are notoriously difficult to recruit for survey-based research. However, many ultra-high-net-worth individuals with assets over US$50 million have exceptionally large climate footprints through consumption, including owning multiple dwellings and using private jets."

The study notes the impacts of climate change are disproportionate: "High-SES people emit the most GHGs but tend to be least vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, whereas lower-SES people are typically most vulnerable."

The study authors note air travel emissions increase rapidly as a function of income and are the largest source of GHG emissions for high-emitting individuals, Using a more realistic estimate for the emissions from air travel of 7.2% including high altitude effects, the study notes that "these emissions are overwhelmingly from high-SES people, with 50% of GHG emissions from air travel originating from just 1% of the world population"

Emissions from housing also correlate with income. The study states: "In Europe, nearly 11% of GHG emissions from housing come from the top 1% of emitters, whose emissions are attributable to ownership and occupancy of larger homes, multiple residences and highly energy-consuming household goods such as central air conditioning."

The study also finds: "Investments in stocks, bonds, businesses and real estate are disproportionately made by those in the top 1% of income and wealth." They actually own those big polluters and have shares in those fossil fuel companies. The authors write that "Through shifting investments to low-emissions companies and mutual funds, high-SES people can press companies to lower GHG emissions and thereby drive structural change. By contrast, investments that favour continuing fossil fuel use will delay emissions reductions."

Indeed, the study gets positive about the role High-SES people can play because of their influence. "High-SES people have driven increased emissions in the past but can also contribute to mitigation via their positions as role models within their social networks and for those who aspire to their levels of status." Examples are prominent drivers of electric cars: These are the people lining up for the electric Lucids and Rolls-Royces we ogle on Treehugger.

They can also change investment policies and promote new technologies, which is what Gates' Breakthrough Energy is doing. But as the study concludes, "We stress that high-SES people are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change and its harms."

So basically, to circle back to Secretary and her suggestion that individual responsibility is irrelevant, it turns out that a certain subset of individuals, the 1%, are in fact responsible for 15% of the world's emissions, and their emissions are relevant indeed. Half of that comes from the 0.1%.

The Board and investors of Breakthrough Energy, which is producing the Cipher newsletter have individual responsibility that is particularly relevant. They are all ultra-high-SES: It is composed of people like Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries, a multinational with interests in oil, natural gas, and petrochemicals. And that is just starting at A. There is Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Gates, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, some Waltons, and others. They are not only massive emitters of carbon through their own consumption, but they own the companies that drive that consumption for everyone else.

I am not going to fall into the trap of saying they shouldn't fly private jets or have multiple houses; I have read Sami Grover's book "We Are All Climate Hypocrites Now." These are the perquisites of being in the .001%.

But it once again demonstrates that it is not the producers, the "big polluters" who cause carbon emissions. It's the big consumers, the richest 10% that emit half the greenhouse gases, the richest 1% that emit 15%. If there was any policy that Energy Secretary Granholm could promote to get real systemic change and reduction in carbon emissions, it would be a big honking progressive carbon tax.

View Article Sources
  1. Nielsen, Kristian S. et al. "The Role of High-Socioeconomic-Status People in Locking in or Rapidly Reducing Energy-Driven Greenhouse Gas Emissions." Nature Energy, 2021, doi:10.1038/s41560-021-00900-y