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Shift the focus from the super-poor to the super-rich


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Carbon mitigation efforts often focus on the world’s poorest people, dealing with topics such as food and energy security, and increased emissions potential from projected population, income and consumption growth. However, more policies are needed that target people at the opposite end of the social ladder — the super-rich.
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Shift the focus from the super-poor to the super-rich1
Ilona M. Otto1*, Kyoung Mi Kim2,3, Nika Dubrovksy4, Wolfgang Lucht1,5
1Earth System Analysis, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, Member of the Leibniz Association,
Telegrafenberg A31, 14473 Potsdam, Germany
2Environmental and Resource Management, Brandenburg University of Technology Cottbus Senftenberg, Postbox
101344, 03013 Cottbus, Germany
3 Korea Foundation for the Advancement of Science and Creativity, 602 Seollungno, Gangnam-Gu, Seoul 06097, South
4An independent artist and curator working together with Neue Auftraggeber, Tempelhofer Damm 2, 12101 Berlin,
5Department of Geography, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Unter den Linden 6, 10099 Berlin, Germany
* Correspoding author, e-mail:
Please cite as: Otto, I.M., Kim, K.M, Dubrovsky, N., Lucht, W. (2019). Shift the focus from the super-poor to the super-rich.
Nature Climate Change, 9: 82-94 doi:10.1038/s41558-019-0402-3
Carbon mitigation efforts often focus on the world’s poorest people, dealing with topics such as
food and energy security, and the increased emissions potential from projected population,
income, and consumption growth. However, more policies are needed that target people at the
opposite end of the social ladder the super-rich.
In 2017 there were 36.05 million adults classified as High Net Worth Individuals (net assets above
USD 1 million), and 148,000 classified as Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (net assets above USD 50
million)1. The super-rich are, on the one hand, the most visible social group in terms of their presence
in mass culture, social media, politics, and business, and on the other hand, the most hidden social
group in terms of the availability of data on their income, lifestyles, resource use, consumption
patterns, mobility, and social networks. It seems as though we know a lot about them from watching
TV, soap operas, and reading glossy magazines.
However, once we try to obtain more concrete data about this social group, there is practically
nothing available and in practice very few people personally know someone belonging to the super-
rich. For example, the supposedly representative survey of the German population on per capita
consumptions of natural resources largely omits the most wealthy respondents; it includes only 3.5%
of respondents that reported income above 5,000 per month2. According to the German Statistical
Office, however, 15.1% of households in Germany have a monthly income in the range of 5,000-
Affluent people can more easily disconnect themselves from the realities of climate change and
climate extremes4, and are in general the least affected by natural disasters, against which they can
1 Pleased cite as: Otto, I.M., Kim, K.M, Dubrovsky, N., Lucht, W. (2019). Shift the focus from the super-poor to
the super-rich. Nature Climate Change, 9: 82-94
shield themselves more effectively; their extreme mobility gives them options to avoid dangerous
environmental situations and they have greater economic capacity and better accessibility to
recovery systems. This perhaps explains why the most wealthy have been largely ignored in climate
change research, which instead frequently focuses on the poor, who are the group most affected by,
and most vulnerable to, climate change impacts.
However, given their notable affluence in lifestyle and consumption when compared to the poor, a
better understanding of the super-rich could be an important contribution to climate mitigation
options. The lifestyles and consumption patterns of the super-rich strongly influence the globally
growing middle classes who emulate upper-class consumption styles to distinguish themselves from
lower classes5. In addition, the super-rich have a great impact on technological innovation and could
actively support zero carbon and renewable energy technologies. The world’s billionaires have driven
almost 80% of the 40 main breakthrough innovations over the last 40 years6. Moreover, consumption
choices of the wealthiest could support market penetration of new technologies that are still not
affordable for the middle classes.
Here we estimate the greenhouse gas emissions of the super-rich to suggest the carbon savings that
could be obtained by targeting this group, and we reflect on how this could be achieved.
GHG emissions of the super-rich
There are just a few scientific publications analyzing lifestyles and associated greenhouse gas
emissions of the super-rich, i.e. their personal emissions rather than those of the investment assets
they may additionally hold or control as a part of their wealth, and none based on representative
surveys. According to some estimates, the average lifestyle consumption carbon footprint of
someone in the richest 1% could be 175 times that of someone in the poorest 10% 7.
We conducted lifestyle consumption surveys with four interviewees including three super-rich
people and a pilot operating a private jet that is hired by private wealthy customers. From this data
we have averaged the results from four online carbon-footprint calculators to estimate the carbon
emissions corresponding to the lifestyles reported by our interviewees (see Table 1).
The households that we interviewed are each believed to hold over USD 1 million in investment
assets excluding their primary residence and personal items; two families were living in South Korea
and one in the U.S. The pilot had customers primarily from Central Europe. He provided us with the
average annual distance and number of flights of his customers. Our survey focused on emissions
from private motor vehicles, air travel, household energy use, and spending on food and education.
These activities arguably cover about 70-80% of carbon emissions from individual consumption8.
Our results suggest that a typical super-rich household of two people produces a carbon footprint of
129.3 tCO2e/year. Motor vehicle use generates approximately 9.6 tCO2e/year, with household energy
emitting 18.9 tCO2e/year, secondary consumption 34.3 tCO2e/year, and 66.5 tCO2e/year generated
by the leading emission contributor: air travel (Fig. 1). Our carbon emissions estimates are
substantially lower than those provided by Chancel and Piketty 9 in an analysis based on national GDP
and emission data for the years 1998-2013, but amount to around ten times that of the global per
person average. Calculating the emissions from 0.54% of the wealthiest of the global population,
according to our estimates, results in cumulative emissions equal to 3.9 billion tCO2e/year. This is
equivalent to 13.6% of total lifestyle related carbon emissions. In comparison, the world’s poorest
50% are responsible for about 10% of lifestyle consumption emissions 7.
Room for reduction
There is a largely untapped potential to reduce carbon emissions by altering the way of life of the
super-rich. For example, reducing the carbon footprint of this group by about 20% could be achieved
by turning their residences into zero carbon homes with decentralized renewable energy production
and using electric vehicles for both energy storage and land transport. Some secondary consumption
emissions could be avoided by choosing more durable goods and reducing consumption. Frequent air
travel is a primary contributor to hugely above-average emissions of the super-rich that could be
substantially reduced by avoiding using private jets and just flying less. Changes in behavior of the
super-rich to reduce their emissions may also have important down-stream benefits as their lifestyles
are the sources of inspiration for the consumption behavior of the rest of the human population.
Some of the wealthiest are known to already actively engage in climate protection. For example, Bill
Gates supports and invests in combatting climate change-related problems, through the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation. Otto Group as well as the Bosch Company are associated with
foundations that actively support environmental and sustainability oriented research and education.
Stordalen Foundation has invested in a wide range of cutting-edge research and public engagement
for sustainability. Other super-rich have been planting trees in an effort to offset their carbon
footprints10. Nevertheless, these examples are far from typical and it is the unengaged majority of
the super-rich that requires attention if actual emissions reductions are to be achieved.
Policies must target the super-rich
The wealthiest are not much affected by the mitigation policies in which nation states are the main
actors as well as the main sources of funding. The current climate mitigation efforts focusing on
afforestation, energy supply and demand, transportation and buildings11 correlate only weakly
overall with the sectors driving the world’s biggest fortunes (finance and investment, fashion and
retail, and real estate12). Heavy environmental taxation, as commonly discussed, is unlikely to effect
the consumption behavior of the super-rich, who can simply afford to continue polluting4.
Policies that more aggressively force carbon footprint reduction of the super-rich may be pursued as
a part of a comprehensive portfolio of mitigation. Examples of policies that are currently being
discussed include compulsory restrictions on household and individual emissions, and building code
regulations13. Those specifically targeting the wealthiest could include obligatory installation of
renewable energy facilities on houses and apartments above a certain size. Importantly, in contrast
to the poorest in the community, the richest have the agency and power that are needed to change
their lifestyles to meet policy requirements without compromising quality of life. The leadership of
the super-rich in adopting renewable energy technologies could generate positive knowledge and
technology diffusion spill-over effects making such technologies more attractive and more affordable
for other social groups.
In addition, new and more sophisticated policy instruments are needed. Some authors propose
introducing an inheritance tax14,15 that could be an additional source of funds for climate mitigation.
Just in 2017 alone, 44 heirs inherited more than a billion dollars each, totaling USD 189 billion6. For
comparison, the largest multilateral climate funds, including the Green Climate Fund, Adaptation
Fund, Climate Investment Funds and Global Environment Facility, approved USD 2.78 billion of
project support in 201616.
Next Steps
Any form of policy targeted at the super-rich is bound to meet with strong resistance. The rich are
overrepresented in national governments and there are strong ties between the wealthy and the
political elites. Therefore, it is important to raise awareness about these issues and to build social
pressure on the super-rich and political elites all over the world.
More research is also needed to understand the motives that might drive the wealthy to become
environmentally engaged in their private life as well as in their business operations. For example
major investors could be encouraged to exert influence on the fossil-fuel sector by divesting their
assets and reinvesting their money in renewables, however, one would have to understand first
which arguments and communication channels should be used to successfully reach this group.
Finally, more efforts are needed to educate the rich. The impacts of unmitigated climate change on
ecosystems, agricultural production, and water availability in the 21st Century will lead to large-scale
population displacements, disruption of international trade networks, food shortages, and an
increasing number of conflicts over basic resources17. The manifold consequences for human security
and health suggest that no amount of money would guarantee the safety, or even survival, of our
generation’s offspring, including those from super-rich families. Such a message should reach the
world’s most wealthy and most powerful.
The authors acknowledge comments on the research received from Frank Wätzold, Kira Vinke, Jan
Sendzimir, Vatan Hüzeir, Thiago Garcia, Antonia Schuster as well as the funding from the Earth
League alliance. This work has been carried out within the Copan: Co-evolutionary Pathways
Research Group at PIK.
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Verbräuchen natürlicher Ressourcen in Deutschland (nach Bevölkerungsgruppen). 143 (2016).
3. Statistisches Bundesamt. Sample survey of income and expenditure. (2016).
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University, 2015).
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footprint-is-much-higher-than-he-thinks/. (Accessed: 28th January 2018)
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Transition and Sustainable Peace (Springer Interantional Publishing, 2016).
Table 1: Summary of survey data collected on the monthly consumption habits reported by four
interviewees. The averaged results from four different carbon footprint calculators were used to
estimate the emissions of a typical super-rich household.
Interviewee A Interviewee B Interviewee C Interviewee D
Business sector
Real estate Trade Aviation
Household size 1 1 - 5 (and 2 babysitters)
Motor vehicles
Discovery Sport
Mercedes E Coupe
Mercedes C63
Hyundai Genesis (excluded
from data)
Large sedans
Driving miles
1st car: 800 miles
2nd car: 400 miles
1st car: 1,000 miles
2nd car: 600 miles -
1st car: 1,564 miles
2nd car: 1,279 miles
Air travel
Short: 5
Medium: 2
Long: 1
Short: 0
Medium: 10
Long: 0
Total distance:
4,143 miles
Short: 0
Medium: 0
Long: 2
2 (Republic of Korea)
1st: 280
2nd: 185
2 (Republic of Korea &
1st: 185
2nd: 560
2 (United States)
1st: 500
2nd: 500
Secondary - - -
Cultural activities:
USD 2,000
Food: USD 2,500
Education (per year):
USD 25,000 to 60,000
Carbon footprint
(tCO2e/year)** 73.3 84.7 177.4 105.6
*Driving mileage ex pressed in miles (mi) for two most frequently used cars. For air travel, a one-way fl ight is counted as 1.
** The average result of c alculating the carbon fo otprint with four diffe rent carbon footprint calculators: CoolClimate Network; Carbon Footprint Lt; myclimate;
Korean Carbo n Footprint
Figure 1: The estimated carbon footprint of a typical super-rich household of two people. Data
were derived from four consumption habit surveys, and show the average of four carbon footprint
calculators. Total emissions are approximately 129.3 tCO2e/year
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Inequality of Overconsumption: The Ecological Footprint of the Richest
  • D Kenner
Kenner, D. Inequality of Overconsumption: The Ecological Footprint of the Richest (Anglia Ruskin University, 2015).
Leonardo DiCaprio’s carbon footprint is much higher than he thinks
  • R Rapier
Rapier, R. Leonardo DiCaprio's carbon footprint is much higher than he thinks. Forbes (1 March 2016).