There is a growing recognition that climate chaos is created in rich countries, while the impacts fall on poorer ones. In his short book, Dario Kenner draws our attention to the fact that just focusing on countries doesn’t tell the whole story. There is inequality within countries too, and it can be helpful to focus on wealthy individuals. Hence Carbon Inequality: the role of the richest in climate change.
Study after study has found that the richest in society have the highest carbon footprints. Globally, members of the 1% have carbon footprints 175 times larger than the poorest 10%. A study in the US found the average emissions of the richest 1% were 318 tonnes per person, against 3.6 tonnes for the poorest 10% of US citizens. The richest have a far greater ability to pollute, and they do so in three main ways:
- First, very rich people tend to have expensive lifestyles, which often come with a higher carbon footprint. That could be bigger homes, cars and boats, and most importantly, aviation. It’s not an example from the book, but Elon Musk’s private plane took around 250 flights last year. Hyper-mobility is the most damaging aspect of elite over-consumption.
- However, the yachts and private planes can be a distraction from a second major element of carbon inequality. Wealth can be made from activities that destroy the climate, and in 2015 there were 88 billionaires who were known to invest in fossil fuels. Alongside fossil fuel company executives and decision makers, Kenner calls these the ‘polluter elite’, people who have particular responsibility for prolonging the age of fossil fuels and making piles of money in the process.
- Third, those who make their fortunes from fossil fuels have a direct interest in slowing or stopping the transition away from dirty energy. They may use their lobbying power, political donations or connections to thwart renewable energy, avoid carbon taxes and secure tax breaks for dirty industry.
It’s worth drawing out the particular responsibilities of the super-rich because this inequality can easily be obscured by national carbon accounting. “Tracking individual investment emissions is a more accurate way of identifying responsibility and complicity.” Kenner also echoes the point made in the book The Shock of the Anthropocene, that we should avoid talking about humanity in the aggregate. Responsibility for climate change is not equally shared, and the term ‘Anthropocene’ unfairly treats everyone the same.
The book looks at each of these three elements of carbon inequality in turn, with examples from the UK and the US. It ends with a chapter on ‘destabilising the polluter elite’. Kenner points out that coal has collapsed in recent decades, which proves that it is possible to disrupt the energy incumbency – but that the transition beyond oil and gas needs to happen much faster. Hard as it may be when fossil fuels prop up economic growth, government will need to support renewable energy, introduce carbon taxes and set targets for phasing out dirty energy.
Carbon Inequality builds on Kenner’s previous academic work, and it’s not a rant at rich people. It doesn’t name and shame, and if you’re looking for tales of excess to make you feel superior about your own carbon footprint, you’ll have to look elsewhere. This is a book about justice and responsibility, and how wealth distorts power at the expense of the climate. It’s about the connection between extreme inequality and climate breakdown, and it’s a valuable contribution to our understanding of who is most responsible.