The Rich Emit More Carbon Just Flying Than Most Do Just Living

Yet there is no correlation between high carbon footprints and high well-being.

No more flying like this

SAS Museum / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

A new study confirms what we have reported before: The rich are different from you and me; they emit way more carbon. The research out of the United Kingdom shows where they emit it—a lot of it comes from flying.

The study raises a lot of questions about where we have been putting our efforts in reducing carbon emissions. While we are busy telling people to take shorter showers and turn down the thermostat, the study finds the rich drive excess energy use while poor people's "contribution to overall energy demand is negligible."

Energy footprints of British households– levels and composition by income deciles (panel a) and by Energy footprints deciles (panel b).
Energy footprints of British households levels and composition by income deciles (panel a) and by Energy footprints deciles (panel b).

Mart Baltruszewicz, et al.

The energy footprint graph says it all: The big greenish-yellow bar representing international flights by the top decile, or 10% of the U.K. population, is bigger than the total carbon emissions of up to the sixth decile, or more than half the population. These are British data, so the domestic flights are small in comparison to the international, but the impact of air travel would likely be similar in the U.S.

Josh Gabbatiss of Carbon Brief looked at the study and is blunt: "Car journeys and flights taken by the richest British people—especially 'white, wealthy middle-aged men'—used more energy that year than 60% of the population got through in total."

Energy footprints of British households– levels and composition by high and low well-being and energy group.
Energy footprints of British households levels and composition by high and low well-being and energy group.

Mart Baltruszewicz, et al.

The study attempts to correlate a well-being score (WBS)—a mix of mental and physical health, loneliness, financial security, and housing, to energy consumption—and finds that a lot of people with high well-being scores, living above the poverty line with adequate heating, do not have massive carbon footprints, while a few are responsible for a disproportionate amount of energy demand. But being wealthy and flying around doesn't necessarily correlate with having a great well-being score. In other words, there are many miserable rich people with high carbon footprints and happy middle-income people with reasonably low emissions.

So while we have often discussed the correlation of wealth to carbon, the study "addresses a gap in the foot-printing literature by going beyond the drivers and barriers of household footprints to examine the social outcomes of energy use, in terms of needs satisfaction and well-being." The study finds it is possible to have high well-being with an energy footprint of around 100 gigajoules per year, although there are many with low well-being living in energy poverty that have high energy footprints because they are spending all their money trying to keep warm in leaky houses.

The authors suggest a solution: "A comprehensive governmental response such as strong incentives for retrofitting is needed. The pressure for change often comes from protest groups such as Insulate Britain, which fight for retrofit programs that would help reduce energy demand and improve lives of the most vulnerable and often invisible groups."

They also look at transportation, noting that many with low well-being are putting resources into maintaining cars because alternatives don't exist: "The reliance on cars for needs and wants satisfaction is created and maintained by the political economy of car dependence." Many people with high well-being drive a lot less because they live in walkable neighborhoods or have access to good transit.

Then there is the question of flying, which contributes over half of the energy footprint of the top 10% but has little correlation to high well-being. The authors complain about government subsidies to aviation and call for frequent flyer levies. According to the study: "The purpose of flying should be considered though when designing interventions as there is a difference between weekend shopping trips to Paris and trips to reconnect and care for family abroad."

As study lead author Marta Baltruszewicz told Carbon Brief:

“So why do we still develop infrastructure for flying…Why do we facilitate something that clearly doesn’t contribute to societal wellbeing, but is also destroying our climate?”

The authors conclude that keeping to the 1.5-degree scenario requires significant changes to how we travel, work, and live, including reducing social inequalities. They call for a Treehugger favorite: sufficiency—a lifestyle where one has high well-being without a giant energy footprint.

"Without policies aiming for sufficiency, we will not be able to mitigate the effects of our lifestyles. Living a sufficient lifestyle does not doom us to ‘go back to caves.’ Our analysis suggests that more efficient energy services, such as the provision of public transport and improvements in housing, could substantially lower energy demand without adversely affecting well-being outcomes. However, this will not be enough, interventions must also target high-energy users whose energy excess can undermine efforts to reduce energy consumption. Sufficiency can mean flourishing for all, but sustaining the status quo of unchecked energy-intensive lifestyles of a few rich can be also disastrous for all."

The "go back to caves" quote reminded me of one of our earliest posts discussing sufficiency, where I wrote: "We don't have to all freeze in the dark in our long johns in tiny rooms. We need better insulation, so we don’t have to get used to lower temperatures and thermal underwear; perhaps electric bikes for those who find regular cycling too hard. We have to change the way we live and the way we get around. It is all about sufficiency."

Or as Samuel Alexander of the Simplicity Institute defined sufficiency:

"This would be a way of life based on modest material and energy needs but nevertheless rich in other dimensions—a life of frugal abundance. It is about creating an economy based on sufficiency, knowing how much is enough to live well, and discovering that enough is plenty."

This latest study provided data demonstrating that a lifestyle of high well-being and satisfaction doesn't have to be one of high carbon emissions. Instead, look for a low-carbon lifestyle of sufficiency that doesn't involve a lot of flying.

View Article Sources
  1. Baltruszewicz, Marta, et al. “Social Outcomes of Energy Use in the United Kingdom: Household Energy Footprints and Their Links to Well-Being.” Ecological Economics, vol. 205, 2023, p. 107686., doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2022.107686