Private Planes, Mansions and Superyachts: Calculating Billionaires' Massive Carbon Footprint
By Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros
Tesla's Elon Musk and Amazon's Jeff Bezos have been vying for the world's richest person ranking all year after the former's wealth soared a staggering US$160 billion in 2020, putting him briefly in the top spot.
Musk isn't alone in seeing a significant increase in wealth during a year of pandemic, recession and death. Altogether, the world's billionaires saw their wealth surge over $1.9 trillion in 2020, according to Forbes.
Those are astronomical numbers, and it's hard to get one's head around them without some context. As anthropologists who study energy and consumer culture, we wanted to examine how all that wealth translated into consumption and the resulting carbon footprint.
Walking in a Billionaire's Shoes
We found that billionaires have carbon footprints that can be thousands of times higher than those of average Americans.
The wealthy own yachts, planes and multiple mansions, all of which contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, a superyacht with a permanent crew, helicopter pad, submarines and pools emits about 7,020 tons of CO2 a year, according to our calculations, making it by the far worst asset to own from an environmental standpoint. Transportation and real estate make up the lion's share of most people's carbon footprint, so we focused on calculating those categories for each billionaire.
To pick a sample of billionaires, we started with the 2020 Forbes List of 2,095 billionaires. A random or representative sample of billionaire carbon footprints is impossible because most wealthy people shy away from publicity, so we had to focus on those whose consumption is public knowledge. This excluded most of the superrich in Asia and the Middle East.
We combed 82 databases of public records to document billionaires' houses, vehicles, aircraft and yachts. After an exhaustive search, we started with 20 well-known billionaires whose possessions we were able to ascertain, while trying to include some diversity in gender and geography. We have submitted our paper for peer review but plan to continue adding to our list.
We then used a wide range of sources, such as the U.S. Energy Information Administration and Carbon Footprint, to estimate the annual CO2 emissions of each house, aircraft, vehicle and yacht. In some cases we had to estimate the size of houses from satellite images or photos and the use of private aircraft and yachts by searching the popular press and drawing on other studies. Our results are based on analyzing typical use of each asset given its size and everything else we could learn.
We did not try to calculate each asset's "embodied carbon" emissions – that is, how much CO2 is burned throughout the supply chain in making the product – or the emissions produced by their family, household employees or entourage. We also didn't include the emissions of companies of which they own part or all, because that would have added another significant degree of complexity. For example, we didn't calculate the emissions of Tesla or Amazon when calculating Musk's or Bezos' footprints.
In other words, these are all likely conservative estimates of how much they emit.
Your Carbon Footprint
To get a sense of perspective, let's start with the carbon footprint of the average person.
Residents of the U.S., including billionaires, emitted about 15 tons of CO2 per person in 2018. The global average footprint is smaller, at just about 5 tons per person.
In contrast, the 20 people in our sample contributed an average of about 8,190 tons of CO2 in 2018. But some produced far more greenhouse gases than others.
Some of the biggest polluters have relatively little wealth, while the two richest – Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos – have relatively small carbon footprints. Yachts make up most of the emissions of those who have one. Mansions and other dwellings make up a very minor share of their carbon footprints. Values are in terms of tons of CO2 equivalent.
The Jet-Setting Billionaire
Roman Abramovich, who made most of his $19 billion fortune trading oil and gas, was the biggest polluter on our list. Outside of Russia, he is probably best known as the headline-grabbing owner of London's Chelsea Football Club.
Abramovich cruises the Mediterranean in his superyacht, named the Eclipse, which at 162.5 meters bow to stern is the second-biggest in the world, rivaling some cruise ships. And he hops the globe on a custom-designed Boeing 767, which boasts a 30-seat dining room. He takes shorter trips in his Gulfstream G650 jet, one of his two helicopters or the submarine on his yacht.
He maintains homes in many countries, including a mansion in London's Kensington Park Gardens, a chateau in Cap D'Antibes in France and a 28-hectare estate in St. Barts that once belonged to David Rockefeller. In 2018, he left the U.K. and settled in Israel, where he became a dual citizen and bought a home in 2020 for $64.5 million.
We estimate that he was responsible for at least 33,859 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2018 – more than two-thirds from his yacht, which is always ready to use at a moment's notice year-round.
Massive Mansions and Private Jets
Bill Gates, currently the world's fourth-richest person with $124 billion, is a "modest" polluter – by billionaire standards – and is typical of those who may not own a giant yacht but make up for it with private jets.
Co-founder of Microsoft, he retired in 2020 to manage the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest charity, with an endowment of $50 billion.
In the 1990s, Gates built Xanadu – named after the vast fictional estate in Orson Welles' "Citizen Kane" – at a cost of $127 million in Medina, Washington. The giant home covers 6,131 square meters, with a 23-car garage, a 20-person cinema and 24 bathrooms. He also owns at least five other dwellings in Southern California, the San Juan Islands in Washington state, North Salem, New York, and New York City, as well as a horse farm, four private jets, a seaplane and "a collection" of helicopters.
We estimated his annual footprint at 7,493 metric tons of carbon, mostly from a lot of flying.
The Environmentally Minded Tech CEO
South African-born Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has a surprisingly low carbon footprint despite being the world's second-richest person, with $177 billion – and he seems intent on setting an example for other billionaires.
He doesn't own a superyacht and says he doesn't even take vacations.
We calculated a relatively modest carbon footprint for him in 2018, thanks to his eight houses and one private jet. This year, his carbon footprint would be even lower because in 2020 he sold all of his houses and promised to divest the rest of his worldly possessions.
While his personal carbon footprint is still hundreds of times higher than that of an average person, he demonstrates that the superrich still have choices to make and can indeed lower their environmental impact if they so choose.
His estimated footprint from the assets we looked at was 2,084 tons in 2018.
The Value of Naming and Shaming
The aim of our ongoing research is to get people to think about the environmental burden of wealth.
While plenty of research has shown that rich countries and wealthy people produce far more than their share of greenhouse gas emissions, these studies can feel abstract and academic, making it harder to change this behavior.
We believe "shaming" – for lack of a better word – superrich people for their energy-intensive spending habits can have an important impact, revealing them as models of overconsumption that people shouldn't emulate.
Newspapers, cities and local residents made an impact during the California droughts of 2014 and 2015 by "drought shaming" celebrities and others who were wasting water, seen in their continually green lawns. And the Swedes came up with a new term – "flygskam" or flying shame – to raise awareness about the climate impact of air travel.
Climate experts say that to have any hope of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, countries must cut their emissions in half by 2030 and eliminate them by 2050.
Asking average Americans to adopt less carbon-intensive lifestyles to achieve this goal can be galling and ineffective when it would take about 550 of their lifetimes to equal the carbon footprint of the average billionaire on our list.
Richard Wilk is a Distinguished Professor and Provost's Professor of Anthropology; Director of the Open Anthropology Institute, Indiana University.
Beatriz Barros is a Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology, Indiana University.
Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
- Large U.S. Homes Create Bigger Carbon Footprint, New Study Shows ›
- Amazon's Carbon Footprint Rises 15% as Company Invests $2 ... ›
- Coffee's Invisible Carbon Footprint - EcoWatch ›
- New Clues Help Monarch Butterfly Conservation Efforts - EcoWatch ›
- Monarch Butterflies Will Be Protected Under Historic Deal - EcoWatch ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
California faces another "critically dry year" according to state officials, and a destructive wildfire season looms on its horizon. But in a state that welcomes innovation, water efficacy approaches and drought management could replenish California, increasingly threatened by the climate's new extremes.
- Remarkable Drop in Colorado River Water Use Sign of Climate ... ›
- California Faces a Future of Extreme Weather - EcoWatch ›
Wisdom the mōlī, or Laysan albatross, is the oldest wild bird known to science at the age of at least 70. She is also, as of February 1, a new mother.
<div id="dadb2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa2ad8cb566c9b4b6d2df2693669f6f9"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1357796504740761602" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Cute baby alert! Wisdom's chick has hatched!!! 🐣😍 Wisdom, a mōlī (Laysan albatross) and world’s oldest known, ban… https://t.co/Nco050ztBA</div> — USFWS Pacific Region (@USFWS Pacific Region)<a href="https://twitter.com/USFWSPacific/statuses/1357796504740761602">1612558888.0</a></blockquote></div>
By Hui Hu
Winter is supposed to be the best season for wind power – the winds are stronger, and since air density increases as the temperature drops, more force is pushing on the blades. But winter also comes with a problem: freezing weather.
Comparing rime ice and glaze ice shows how each changes the texture of the blade. Gao, Liu and Hu, 2021, CC BY-ND
Ice buildup changes air flow around the turbine blade, which can slow it down. The top photos show ice forming after 10 minutes at different temperatures in the Wind Research Tunnel. The lower measurements show airflow separation as ice accumulates. Icing Research Tunnel of Iowa State University, CC BY-ND
While traditional investment in the ocean technology sector has been tentative, growth in Israeli maritime innovations has been exponential in the last few years, and environmental concern has come to the forefront.
theDOCK aims to innovate the Israeli maritime sector. Pexels<p>The UN hopes that new investments in ocean science and technology will help turn the tide for the oceans. As such, this year kicked off the <a href="https://www.oceandecade.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030)</a> to galvanize massive support for the blue economy.</p><p>According to the World Bank, the blue economy is the "sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods, and jobs while preserving the health of ocean ecosystem," <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412019338255#b0245" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Science Direct</a> reported. It represents this new sector for investments and innovations that work in tandem with the oceans rather than in exploitation of them.</p><p>As recently as Aug. 2020, <a href="https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/esg-investors-slow-make-waves-25tn-ocean-economy" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Reuters</a> noted that ESG Investors, those looking to invest in opportunities that have a positive impact in environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, have been interested in "blue finance" but slow to invest.</p><p>"It is a hugely under-invested economic opportunity that is crucial to the way we have to address living on one planet," Simon Dent, director of blue investments at Mirova Natural Capital, told Reuters.</p><p>Even with slow investment, the blue economy is still expected to expand at twice the rate of the mainstream economy by 2030, Reuters reported. It already contributes $2.5tn a year in economic output, the report noted.</p><p>Current, upward <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/-innovation-blue-economy-2646147405.html" target="_self">shifts in blue economy investments are being driven by innovation</a>, a trend the UN hopes will continue globally for the benefit of all oceans and people.</p><p>In Israel, this push has successfully translated into investment in and innovation of global ports, shipping, logistics and offshore sectors. The "Startup Nation," as Israel is often called, has seen its maritime tech ecosystem grow "significantly" in recent years and expects that growth to "accelerate dramatically," <a href="https://itrade.gov.il/belgium-english/how-israel-is-becoming-a-port-of-call-for-maritime-innovation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">iTrade</a> reported.</p><p>Driving this wave of momentum has been rising Israeli venture capital hub <a href="https://www.thedockinnovation.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">theDOCK</a>. Founded by Israeli Navy veterans in 2017, theDOCK works with early-stage companies in the maritime space to bring their solutions to market. The hub's pioneering efforts ignited Israel's maritime technology sector, and now, with their new fund, theDOCK is motivating these high-tech solutions to also address ESG criteria.</p><p>"While ESG has always been on theDOCK's agenda, this theme has become even more of a priority," Nir Gartzman, theDOCK's managing partner, told EcoWatch. "80 percent of the startups in our portfolio (for theDOCK's Navigator II fund) will have a primary or secondary contribution to environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria."</p><p>In a company presentation, theDOCK called contribution to the ESG agenda a "hot discussion topic" for traditional players in the space and their boards, many of whom are looking to adopt new technologies with a positive impact on the planet. The focus is on reducing carbon emissions and protecting the environment, the presentation outlines. As such, theDOCK also explicitly screens candidate investments by ESG criteria as well.</p><p>Within the maritime space, environmental innovations could include measures like increased fuel and energy efficiency, better monitoring of potential pollution sources, improved waste and air emissions management and processing of marine debris/trash into reusable materials, theDOCK's presentation noted.</p>
theDOCK team includes (left to right) Michal Hendel-Sufa, Head of Alliances, Noa Schuman, CMO, Nir Gartzman, Co-Founder & Managing Partner, and Hannan Carmeli, Co-Founder & Managing Partner. Dudu Koren<p>theDOCK's own portfolio includes companies like Orca AI, which uses an intelligent collision avoidance system to reduce the probability of oil or fuel spills, AiDock, which eliminates the use of paper by automating the customs clearance process, and DockTech, which uses depth "crowdsourcing" data to map riverbeds in real-time and optimize cargo loading, thereby reducing trips and fuel usage while also avoiding groundings.</p><p>"Oceans are a big opportunity primarily because they are just that – big!" theDOCK's Chief Marketing Officer Noa Schuman summarized. "As such, the magnitude of their criticality to the global ecosystem, the magnitude of pollution risk and the steps needed to overcome those challenges – are all huge."</p><p>There is hope that this wave of interest and investment in environmentally-positive maritime technologies will accelerate the blue economy and ESG investing even further, in Israel and beyond.</p>
- 14 Countries Commit to Ocean Sustainability Initiative - EcoWatch ›
- These 11 Innovations Are Protecting Ocean Life - EcoWatch ›
- How Innovation Is Driving the Blue Economy - EcoWatch ›