The world’s wealthiest people are responsible for about a million times more emissions than the world’s lowest earners when you take into account their investments, a new report has found. The report, issued Sunday by Oxfam, finds that the world’s 125 wealthiest people—including American billionaires Bill Gates, Jim Walton, Warren Buffett, and Elon Musk—have a combined carbon footprint roughly equivalent to that of the entire country of France.
There’s lots of academic work out there calculating how the personal carbon footprints of the ultra-wealthy differ from the average Joe, and the habits of the world’s superrich certainly jack up their personal emissions. But where billionaires put all that excess money may actually be more important than their private jets or expensive car collections. Past research has shown that financial investments from the world’s top 1% are largely responsible for the size of their overall emissions, rather than their personal lifestyles—between 50% and 70% of their emissions, the Oxfam report estimates. This new report takes into consideration the investments the world’s super rich make and how those investments can enable dirty industries and create even more emissions.
“Emissions from billionaire lifestyles – due to their frequent use of private jets and yachts – are thousands of times the average person, which is already completely unacceptable,” Nafkote Dabi, Climate Change Lead at Oxfam, said in a statement. “But if we look at emissions from their investments, then their carbon emissions are over a million times higher.”
To calculate powerful billionaires’ emissions, researchers at Oxfam first pulled together a list of the world’s wealthiest 220 people, then identified corporations that these people held investments in of at least a 10% equity stake. (Holding a 10% equity stake in a company, as defined by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, makes a person a principal shareholder in that company and much more influential than a normal shareholder in the company’s overall decisions and direction.) Using data from financial services firm Exerica, Oxfam then also calculated the Scope 1 and 2 emissions—direct emissions from operations and indirect emissions from energy, heating, and cooling—of those corporations, and used each billionaire’s investment with these overall emissions to figure out how much they were responsible for.
There were some gaps in the analysis, thanks to a lack of transparency from some of the world’s wealthiest on their investments as well as a similar lack of transparency from corporations on their emissions. However, with the numbers they were able to work with, the Oxfam researchers were still able to figure out that each billionaire out of a final list of 125 was responsible for funding around 3.3 million tons (3 million tonnes) of CO2 emissions in average each year, thanks to their oversize investments in 183 global corporations. The average person in the UK has a pension that finances around 25.4 tons (23 tonnes) of CO2 emissions each year; the world’s poorest 10% of people, meanwhile, produce on average just 3 tons (2.76 tonnes) of CO2 each year.
There are some obvious flaws with this assessment. For one thing, the lack of transparency around emissions as well as missing public information on billionaire equity stakes in certain companies means that the numbers contained here are certainly low, and there’s some notable billionaires missing. (Jeff Bezos, for instance, is not on the final list; we have to wonder what the numbers on his emissions look like.) And someone who is in favor of green capitalism swooping in to save the planet could argue that someone like Gates or Musk’s carbon-intensive investments deserve context, given that their money has gone toward technological solutions to climate change. But the report does emphasize how runaway capitalism and the influence of a powerful and wealthy few can keep the world careening toward disaster, even as the rest of us are increasingly affected—and how relying on the rich and powerful to kick climate action into gear is a losing game.
“These few billionaires together have ‘investment emissions’ that equal the carbon footprints of entire countries like France, Egypt or Argentina,” Dabi said. “The major and growing responsibility of wealthy people for overall emissions is rarely discussed or considered in climate policy making. This has to change. These billionaire investors at the top of the corporate pyramid have huge responsibility for driving climate breakdown. They have escaped accountability for too long.”