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World’s Richest 10% Produce Half of All Emissions

Updated: Nov 16, 2022

Aimee Jones reports on carbon emissions and puts into perspective, those who are contributing most to climate change.

Photo by nikldn

According to the Cambridge dictionary, emissions are defined as the “production and discharge of something, typically gases and radiation which are harmful to our environment”. Harmful emissions have increased exponentially since the Industrial Revolution and it is no surprise that the richest 10% of the population emit over half of all global emissions.

What Are Greenhouse Gases?

Greenhouse gases, which include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and ozone, trap heat from the sun inside the ozone layer, acting as a “glass wall” for our planet. Thus, greenhouse gases keep earth habitable for both humans and millions of other species by preventing freezing temperatures as low at -18 degrees Celsius. However, a great increase in these gases can have detrimental effects to our planet by initiating a knock-on effect of global warming.

Humans release these emissions by burning fossil fuels; some of the main contributors are non-renewable modes of transport, such as diesel cars, airplanes, and public transport. The most prevalent greenhouse gas that threatens our planet today is carbon dioxide, which is at its highest level ever recorded increasing by 47% in concentration since the 1800s.

Who is Responsible?

While we can all play a part in reducing our carbon footprints, in the United States, the poorest 50% of the country emit approximately ten tonnes of carbon dioxide per person. However, when you take a look at the richest 10% of the population, they emit roughly seventy-five tonnes per person.

One reason for this disparity stems from the inequalities amongst the distribution of goods and services. For example, the rich can purchase more goods and services, as well as invest, in comparison to less affluent individuals. Those who are in the bottom 50% net personal wealth share only contribute to a stark 1.8% of the world’s total in 2022, meaning that owning less assets - that may consume non-renewable energy – produces a significantly reduced carbon footprint.

Some celebrities, or high-profile individuals, have been found to recklessly increase their carbon footprint. Jeff Bezos, for example, took an 11-minute trip into space which emitted more carbon per passenger than the entire lifetime emissions for any one of the world's poorest people. Funding unnecessary space missions when environmental charities are underfunded in a ‘vicious cycle’ is a prime example of the ignorance towards global warming among the elite.

Celebrities have also been known for extreme use of private jets for small haul flights which could have been made using an alternative, less damaging, method of travel. A prime example would be Kylie Jenner using her jet for a 17-minute flight after sharing a photograph on social media showing both hers and her partner's jets, trying to decide which one to take for the journey.

Moreover, a recent survey found that Taylor Swift’s private jet had taken 170 flights between January 1st and July 29th of 2022. This totals approximately 15.9 days in the air, with the average flight lasting 80-minutes. The emissions that were produced were 1,184.8 times more than the yearly average for any individual. Funding unnecessary space missions when environmental charities are underfunded in a ‘vicious cycle’, or exploiting extreme modes of transport, is a prime example of the ignorance towards global warming among the elite in service of ‘convenience’.

Levelling Out the Carbon Footprint

There have been various policies and procedures that have been made to tackle the increasing emissions and start bringing them down. However, these changes are disproportionate for the middle and the lower classes.

A generalised carbon tax seems to be unfair to those who are already struggling. For example, most of the emissions from middle and lower-class citizens come from the use of cars and general heating; they may need a car to travel to work and will need to heat their homes during the winter. These are seen as essentials. Yet, the wealthier families' emissions mainly come from making extravagant purchases and investments, therefore making them more deserving of taxation when it comes to their carbon footprint.

To even out the carbon footprint in the U.S, the top emitters would need to decrease emissions by 87% by the year 2023, while the bottom half could afford to increase their emissions by 3%. Authors of a 2020 Natural Communications journal wrote:

“Many people do not see themselves being part of either the problem or the solution but look for governments, technology and/or businesses to solve the problem” (Thomas Wiedmann, nature communications).

Yet, they conclude that people, not institutions, need to solve the problem as ultimately legal or social structures are designed and made up by people. If people don’t change, the institutions won’t either.


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