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Recently, I wrote briefly about a link between individual wealth and carbon footprints. A new study from Oxfam (along with a companion article in The Guardian) brings more color and depth of analysis to the matter – but a word of caution is warranted: the study has a clear agenda. The premise is the “disproportionate role that the richest individuals play in the climate crisis through their emissions, investments and capture of politics.” Or as The Guardian summed it up: “the richest 1% of the population produced as much carbon pollution in one year as the 5 billion people who make up the poorest two-thirds.”

The key terms are defined in Box 1.2 of the report (based on 2019 data) as follows:

Bottom 50% (“Poorest 50%”) earn less than $5,000 – 3.9 billion people – responsible for 7.7% of global CO2 emissions.

Middle 40% earn a minimum of $5,000 – 3.1 billion people – responsible for 42.5% of global CO2 emissions.

Top 10% (“Rich”) earn a minimum of $41,000 – 770 million people – responsible for 49.8% of global CO2 emissions.

Top 1% (“Super-rich”) earn a minimum of $140,000 – 77 million people – responsible for 15.9% of global CO2 emissions.

Top 0.1% (also called “Super-rich”) earn a minimum of $500,000 – 7.7 million people – responsible for 4.5% of global CO2 emissions.

Top 0.01% (“Ultra-rich”) earn a minimum of $1.8 million – 770,000 people – responsible for 0.7% of global CO2 emissions.

Right off the bat, something isn’t right with these numbers: the total percentages for the population and attributed emissions are off (101.11% and 121.1% respectively). I triple-checked this and even looked to Oxfam’s methodology here for clarification and found none.

Among the report’s conclusions:

– In 2019, the super-rich 1% were responsible for 16% of global carbon emissions, which is the same as the emissions of the poorest 66% of humanity (5 billion people).

– Since the 1990s, the super-rich 1% burned through twice as much of the carbon budget as the poorest half of humanity combined.

– The emissions of the 1% are set to be over 22 times more than the safe limit (the emissions allowed if we are to stay below 1.5°C global warming) in 2030.

– Annual global emissions by the super-rich 1% cancel out carbon savings for almost a million onshore wind turbines.

Putting aside the bias reflected in the report and some of its mathematical oddities, there are points worth considering in company product/service strategies. Wealthy customers are better able to pay for reducing their significant climate impacts, but the question is whether they are actually willing change lifestyles to make reductions. On the other hand, 90% of the population (based on the awkward percentages in the study) can’t afford more expensive goods/services and have little room for lifestyle changes that reduce their footprints. I’m sure some smart folks can figure out a business opportunity here. I just hope it doesn’t involve creating a carbon offset mechanism based on wealth, lifestyle and therefore CO2 emissions allocation differentials in the population.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile