We Need To Talk About The Carbon Footprints Of The Rich

Dramatically unequal consumption lies at the heart of the climate crisis.

Ishaq Fahim for Noema Magazine

Dr. Genevieve Guenther is the founding director of End Climate Silence and affiliate faculty at The New School, where she sits on the board of the Tishman Environment and Design Center. Her next book, “The Language of Climate Politics,” will be published in 2024 by Oxford University Press.

What can you do, as a single individual, to help halt global heating? Social science research suggests that one of the most powerful things you can do is talk about the climate crisis in your networks. But according to many climate activists, the one thing you should not do is discuss people’s personal carbon footprints.

Talking about individual carbon footprints, these activists argue, is, at best, a distraction from the essential work of raising a climate movement and, at worst, a naive and counterproductive embrace of propaganda developed by oil and gas companies to dishearten people and divert them from building a movement for collective action. But this view of climate communication and carbon footprints rests on the mistaken idea that there is a universal individual whose personal carbon footprint is always an irrelevant distraction. The truth is we need to talk about curbing the individual carbon footprints of the rich in order to halt global heating.

First, let’s look at the argument that it’s bad to talk about personal carbon footprints. In the early 2000s, the major oil company BP weaponized the scientific concept of the carbon footprint, placing it at the center of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that made resolving the climate crisis a matter of individuals reducing their consumption. The effect of their strategy was and is to make people feel personally responsible not only for causing the climate crisis by simply living their lives, but also for solving it by no longer driving or flying or eating beef or using plastic straws or whatever the case may be.

This strategy is a feint that puts public attention on the wrong things. The responsibility for causing the climate crisis lies with the oil and gas executives and government officials who, for decades, knew and covered up that fossil fuels cause global heating — and who continue to block the kinds of climate policy that can end the general use of fossil fuels. And the burden of resolving the climate crisis lies on governments. Only governmental institutions have the capacity to meet the systemic challenges of decarbonization. Even if every individual person on the planet reduced their discretionary carbon footprint to zero, the electrical, industrial and agricultural systems of our economies would continue to emit greenhouse gases and make global heating worse.

For precisely that reason, some of the clearest voices in the climate movement have devalued the concept of the climate footprint almost entirely, recommending instead that everyone should embrace and even celebrate the “climate hypocrisy” of their consumption in order to invite more people into the climate movement without any price of admission — without any need for impossible moral purity or even sacrifice. They would argue, for instance, that flying multiple times per year to give talks on the climate crisis is offset by the political effects of those talks themselves — their putative power to inspire other people to join the climate movement, pass climate policy or even reduce their own carbon footprints.

“The discretionary carbon footprints of the 1% are not only unjust on a symbolic level. They are also quite literally a material cause of the climate crisis.”

But there is not only one kind of individual in the world — not everybody is so inextricably entangled in the fossil fuel system that they have no choice but to emit too much carbon. Individuals are situated in their class; their identities are inflected by their privilege. “Driving” signifies something very different for the American worker at a big-box store who is forced to commute in her car to the mall versus the private equity manager speeding a gleaming Lamborghini around the cliffs of the Italian Riviera. One act is the expression of entanglement in an exploitative economic system that makes it impossible not to emit carbon; the other is the expression of the injustice of that very system.

The discretionary carbon footprints of the 1% are not only unjust on a symbolic level. They are also quite literally a material cause of the climate crisis. Researchers estimate that more than half of the emissions generated by humanity since our emergence on this planet have been emitted since 1990. But in these past 30 years, the emissions of the poorest 50% of people have grown hardly at all: They represented a little under 7% of global emissions in 1990, and they remain a little over 7% of global emissions today. By contrast, the richest 10% of people are responsible for 52% of cumulative global emissions — and the 1% for a full 15%.

This means that the richest 63 million are producing fully double the dangerous greenhouse gases that half of all humanity, or nearly four billion people, emit. When scientists include the embodied emissions — or what it takes to make the products bought by the rich — in the calculation of their individual carbon footprints, the numbers become even more grotesque: That makes the average carbon footprint of the richest more than 75 times higher than that of the poorest. An estimate looking into 20 of the most prominent billionaires in the U.S. and Europe found that their carbon footprints in 2018 ranged from about 1,000 metric tons to nearly 32,000.

Meanwhile, much of the Global South is already being destroyed by global heating. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report shows that, from 1991 to 2010, climate change lowered African countries’ per capita GDP by around 13.6%. Declining rainfall due to climate change between 1960 and 2000 alone caused a GDP gap between 15-40% in affected countries, compared to the rest of the world. The climate movement must call for the end of the fossil fuel system that produces and justifies the wealth of the rich while making the Global South uninhabitable.

At the same time, the people who live in the Global South have the right to create economies that take them out of poverty, and fossil energy is, of course, currently available to fuel this development. The challenge is that the whole world’s remaining carbon budget for even just a 50/50 chance of halting global heating at 1.5°C is 420 gigatons of CO2, or about 11 years at current emission rates. This means that governments in the Global North must make good on their commitments to provide aid and pay for the loss and damage already caused by the Global North’s historical emissions — and banks must lend money at cost for climate-safe energy and infrastructure projects in developing countries — so that the Global South can leapfrog into a zero-emissions economy rather than locking in further fossil fuel dependency.

Ishaq Fahim for Noema Magazine

Yet even then, economic development will require at least some steel and cement production, which generates emissions that will also spend down our minuscule remaining carbon budget. The idea that even one metric ton of that budget should be used for yachts, private jets, new wardrobes every three months (fashion brands usually produce four “collections” a year) or even unnecessary commercial flights relies on the dehumanization of the people — generally people of color — who live in the places where the planet is unravelling first.

Dramatically unequal consumption lies at the heart of the climate crisis. In calling for justice, the climate movement must call for the wealthy to reduce their individual carbon footprints — or have their individual carbon footprints reduced by regulation — to as close to zero as possible.

Of course, many Americans are wealthy in global terms. Oxfam has defined the world’s 1% as the 60 million people earning over $109,000 a year. They defined the 10% as the 770 million people earning over $38,000. Yet even those who are affluent in a global sense might not have the extra cash to replace their gas furnace with a heat pump, put solar panels on their roof or replace their car with an EV. Nor might they have the choice to buy clean power from their utilities. The U.S. government has yet to pass policy that makes private zero-carbon options available or that provides public options like community solar or suburban public transportation.

And that is exactly why you should not tell people who live paycheck to paycheck, or who are not already deeply engaged in the climate fight, that they should worry about their individual carbon footprints. Social science research and common sense show that telling these people they need to consume less makes their support for climate policy go down. That’s why BP popularized the idea of the individual carbon footprint in the first place. The vast majority of Americans, even those of us who are rich by global standards, are entrapped by our current economic system and quite literally unable to make transformative changes in our lifestyles.

People who are locked in or stuck should never be made to feel ashamed, frustrated or helpless. And no one should embrace moral absolutism. Movements are built from connections, and connections are made when people approach each other with empathy, embracing their common imperfections and ambivalences, their shared complicity and entanglement. Having the courage to start thinking about the climate crisis at all is hard enough: People entering the climate movement should be welcomed into a community of care.

Yet for us to have any chance to resolve the climate crisis, the climate movement needs to call for climate justice — for new norms and policies targeting the luxury consumption of the super-rich and the upper-middle-class consumption that emulates it. As Bloomberg News recently reported, the personal emissions of the top 0.001% — those with at least $129.2 million in wealth — are so large that these people’s individual consumption decisions “can have the same impact as nationwide policy interventions.” And the super-rich are not reducing their individual carbon footprints voluntarily. On the contrary. In 2021, sales of superyachts, by far the most polluting luxury asset, surged by 77%.

“The richest 10% of people are responsible for 52% of cumulative global emissions — and the 1% for a full 15%.”

But, you may ask, why shouldn’t the rich enjoy the fruits of their success? Isn’t it possible for us to simply innovate our way out of the climate crisis, abating the emissions of the wealthy and everyone else, by using technology to decarbonize fossil fuels or remove excess carbon from the atmosphere?

Well, carbon capture doesn’t capture anything close to 100% of power-plant emissions — it still allows global heating to get worse, just at a more gradual pace. You can think of it like maintenance chemotherapy for metastatic cancer. And the innovations that will supposedly enable us to remove atmospheric carbon — such as bioenergy with carbon-capture and storage (BECCS) or direct air capture (DAC) — face hard planetary constraints that make them infeasible at multi-gigaton scales.

If we used BECCS to remove 12 gigatons of CO2 a year from the atmosphere — around a quarter of global annual emissions — we would have to grow bioenergy on a land area about one and a half times the size of India, according to the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. This is nearly half the land area on which the whole planet grows food. Using this land to deploy BECCS could itself compound injustice by causing food prices to rise steeply and thereby producing a sharp rise in world hunger.

DAC is often touted as a relatively small-footprint carbon removal solution, but we must also take its energy requirements into account. In order to capture one million metric tons of CO2 — about 15 minutes of annual emissions — with the lower-energy version of DAC, the National Academies estimates that we would need anywhere from 1,355 to 2,450 acres of land to host the required methane gas plants and solar panels. To give you a sense of the scale: An American football field is 1.32 acres. New York’s Central Park is 843 acres. This level of land use surely presents feasibility — not to mention justice — issues.

Further, the climate crisis is not simply a problem of excess carbon in the atmosphere. It’s also an entirely unsustainable extraction and distribution of material resources. We would need a second Earth if everyone on the planet ate the way Americans do. As revered environmental scientist Vaclav Smil put it in the pages of this magazine, if only one billion more people started consuming at American levels, even then, “the planet would be stripped.”

Resolving the climate crisis will require more than innovation. It will require remaking our systems — including our class system, or at least the unequal levels of consumption that our class system justifies. Ultimately, this transformation will be delivered by government policies in the context of international negotiations. But it requires a revolution in values, too. We’ll know that we’re on our way when Instagram posts about jet-setting vacations inspire disgust rather than excitement and aspiration.

“People who are locked in or stuck should never be made to feel ashamed, frustrated or helpless.”

To seed that revolution, you can talk about the personal carbon footprints of the super-rich and the people who emulate them. You can call for climate justice. And you can communicate your commitment to these principles by reducing your own discretionary consumption as much as you can.

Having as low a carbon footprint as possible may be all the more important when you’re talking to people who may have doubts about climate change or feel ambivalence about its solutions. Social psychology has long since identified what it calls a “bystander effect” in group dynamics, whereby people will remain in a room filling with smoke, even as they talk about the possibility of fire, until someone perceived as a leader actually gets up and walks out of the room. If climate communicators talk about our burning world and the need for climate justice without at least trying to embody and perform carbon equality, they will end up sending a mixed message that reinforces people’s cognitive dissonance.

Reducing your own discretionary consumption will also enable you to talk about how to have pleasure, take a break, find joy, discover new places and celebrate success without using fossil fuels. Did you decide not to fly, but take a train — which, unlike a plane, can run on clean energy? Did you enjoy the experience of having time to read or watching beautiful scenery go by? Talk about that experience. Are you really into how quickly your induction stove boils water? Talk about that, too. Do you want a world in which everyone is guaranteed six weeks of paid vacation, enough time to travel overseas in elegant solar- and wind-powered clipper ships? Yes, talk about that, too.

In one theory of change, movements build power by placing new people in the rooms where things happen — by raising the profile of climate leaders and amplifying their voices until they are invited to sit at the table of decision-making and transform the way things work. But this theory of change is itself an idea of individual action. It gives one or another person more access and influence within our current system, but it doesn’t change the system itself.

To change the system is to transform its social norms and ideological assumptions as much as it is to transform its means of production and consumption. This work has historically preceded the passage of policy, which only later codifies new norms in legislation whose goals have been so “normalized,” as it were, that opposition or reversal becomes fringe or even unthinkable.

We have to make it normal not just to use zero-carbon forms of energy, but also to pursue our ambitions and enjoy our pleasures without making global heating worse. The material possibility for that life will be produced only by policy, but its cultural and imaginative possibility will be created only by behavior.

The climate crisis is profoundly unfair. The wealthy are currently destroying the Global South — and, if nothing changes, eventually the whole planet — for their own profit and pleasure. Most of their voracious consumption is entirely voluntary. We need to start talking about the personal carbon footprints of the rich and, as much as we can, walking our talk in order to resolve the climate crisis in time to have a livable future.

Correction: This essay originally stated that the low-energy version of DAC would require 1,355-2,450 acres of land to capture one thousand metric tons of CO2, or one second of annual emissions. It should have said one million metric tons of CO2, or about 15 minutes of annual emissions.