Inside the Outsized Carbon Footprints of the Superrich

Big yachts are in the news these days, and they have the biggest footprints.

Two dogs sitting on the stairs of a private jet ramp.

Istock / Getty Images

Trigger warning: Whenever I show my favorite stock photo of puppies flying private, it means I am covering yet another "eat the rich" study looking at their carbon footprint. This one, "The outsized carbon footprints of the super-rich," looks at the lifestyles of people that most North Americans would recognize the names of.

The study, released in September 2021, is already out of date. Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's wealth and emissions are considerably reduced since Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos built a boat that doesn't show up on this list yet. But it is still interesting because of the scale of their emissions and their sources. I have referred to this study in passing in discussions of carbon inequality before but it seemed particularly relevant now, as all these big yachts are in the news these days because of the Ukraine crisis and the attention being paid to Russian oligarchs.

I have previously not been too concerned about the emissions from the richest 1%—or, what we have here, the 0.01%—because while their emissions are high, there are not that many of them compared to the 10%, who on their own account for enough carbon to put us over the carbon budget target to stay under 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit (1.5 degrees Celsius). It's why I was kind of blasé about Bezos' rocket trips: A conventional long-haul airplane flight carrying the masses puts out much more.

I noted, "It looks even less dramatic when you compare it to the average footprint of the billionaire who could afford a $250,000 ticket; he probably already has a carbon footprint of 60 to 80 metric tons per year flying private between multiple residences."

A graph of the carbon footprints of the very rich
The carbon footprints of the very rich.

Lloyd Alter / Data: Beatriz Barros & Richard Wilk

However, we learn from this study that 60 to 80 metric tons was a gross underestimate. Of the billionaires on the list, the one with the lowest emissions, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, came in at 1,171 metric tons—100 times the emissions of the average American at 17 metric tons. (Data are from Table 1 in the study.)

The total estimated annual emissions for the 20 billionaires on the list are 163,885 metric tons, equivalent to the emissions of 9,640 average Americans. As for the source of emissions, 105,264 of the emissions come from their yachts, 54,836 from their transportation, and a surprisingly small 3,785 from their multiple homes.

Roman Abramovich's Super Yacht Solaris
Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich's Super Yacht Solaris.

David Ramos / Getty Images

Abramovich topped the list with 31,198 metric tons—2,400 times the average Briton's 13 metric tons. But like all of the big emitters here, the vast majority (22,440 metric tons) of it is from his yachts.

Study authors Beatriz Barros and Richard Wilk note it is difficult to really pin down the carbon footprints of the ultra-rich. They state: "Most billionaires keep their possessions and consumption private and often hidden by vesting ownership in family members or trusts. The super-rich in the Middle East and Asia are particularly secretive, and we were not able to audit anyone in these regions."

There is no reliable data; much of it is hidden. And the study doesn't take into account investments that are less obvious: Owning a baseball team, for example, might have a bigger footprint than owning a boat. The study only looks at the lifestyles—"the part of their carbon footprint that is directly associated with their consumption and travel."

Barros and Wilk write:

"It is important to remember that the carbon footprints presented in this study are therefore only a small portion of reality, the tip of the iceberg. It is evident that privacy laws and the limitations of public data protect the super-rich and help hide a considerable amount of their consumption. Nevertheless, we think our calculations are illustrative and reflect on fundamental issues of climate justice by contributing to ongoing debates over who is responsible for climate change."

Dwelling footprints were based on floor areas, but the authors don't know the energy mix. They are not corrected for the climate, though the estimates were adjusted for the energy mix in the location of the building. They don't know what the houses are made of "wooden dwellings may be seen as forms of carbon storage or sequestration, while bricks and concrete are carbon-intensive." So it is all an educated guess.

Transportation emissions are high. The authors write: "Travel is a prominent element in the carbon footprint of the super-rich, enabled by an array of ground vehicles, private aircraft (including jets of different sizes, light planes, and helicopters), and yachts with their many tenders and recreational vehicles like jet skis, submarines, ski boats, and hovercraft." 

Emissions from ground transport were based on two cars running at once: one for passengers and one for security. "We could not include estimates for Brin, Musk, or Page, who drive electric vehicles because we do not know the source of the electricity," said the authors.

Alisher Usmanov's 512-foot superyacht
Alisher Usmanov's 512-foot superyacht.

Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

And then there are the yachts. According to the study: "Three-quarters of the billionaires in our sample owned a yacht with an average length of 276 feet (84 meters), and their average carbon equivalent emissions were 7,018 tons per year." The world's largest, owned by Russian oligarch Alisher Usmanov, is twice that length, although it may not be his for long.

Graph of consumption various groups
The share of emissions from the richest 1% is increasing, but it is the richest 10% that is the biggest problem.

IEEP/OXFAM

Barros and Wilk note that many—like me—"argue that while the overconsumption of billionaires is thousands of times that of an average citizen, their wealth is greater by a far larger proportion, so that highly concentrated wealth is less harmful to the environment than the same wealth widely distributed." This is why I have been much more concerned about the top 10%. They do not concur.

"Consumption by billionaires is problematic not only because it is carbon-intensive but also because it ultimately undermines public consensus that could support public policies to reduce emissions and avert climate catastrophe."

Barros and Wilk suggest "public shaming may be an effective strategy to pressure the wealthy to reduce their consumption, as it has in many cultures throughout history." They claim it has been effective discipline on Wall Street, "where a number of prominent figures have fallen following accusations of infractions ranging from sexual harassment to insider trading," adding that "research shows that an effective shaming campaign requires a legitimate platform, good background research, careful targeting, and an offer of a remedy or goal, such as cutting an individual footprint by half or divesting particular investments."

I am not convinced. The billionaires on this list are very public; there are many more that lay low and are more discreet. After the shocking seizure of Abramovich's and other Russian oligarch's assets, it is likely they all will be more discreet. Who knew governments could move to grab assets so quickly and change so much? The answer to this problem isn't shaming—it's a big honking carbon tax.

View Article Sources
  1. Barros, Beatriz, and Richard Wilk. "The Outsized Carbon Footprints of The Super-Rich." Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, vol. 17, no. 1, 2021, pp. 316-322., doi:10.1080/15487733.2021.1949847