Study finds US super-rich 1% generate more CO2 emissions than poorest 50%

Pollution rising from a smoke-stack. Climate GHG Emissions
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A new study has once again proven that billionaires are causing the climate crisis. It offers us more proof, if we needed it, that the super-rich are generating a shocking proportion of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

On 17 August, PLOS Climate published new research which quantified the carbon footprints of US households. The paper tracked the GHG emissions of households according to their income. Specifically, the authors assessed this across the 29-year period between 1990 and 2019.

Significantly, the study found that the US super-rich 1% have been responsible for more GHG emissions than the poorest 50% of American households.

US responsibility for historic emissions

Previous studies have shown that the US is the largest historical emitter of GHG. For example, a 2020 paper by economic anthropologist Jason Hickel found that the US was responsible for 40% of excess global carbon emissions between 1850 and 2015.

Similarly Carbon Brief has also shown that the US ranks first for its historic emissions. It identified that the US had emitted 509Gt CO² between 1850 and 2021. As a result, the country is to blame for a fifth of all CO² emissions during that period.

Moreover, in 2021 the US was the second highest emitter, after China. Nearing 5,000m tonnes of CO², the US alone accounted for over 10% of global emissions.

Given the US’s outsized role in pushing the world down the path to climate breakdown, the new study’s findings are crucial. In no uncertain terms, the research exposes the key culprits: the super rich.

Read on...

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Of course, this should comes as little surprise when some of the richest oil-made magnates in the US have had the ear of its government. Fossil fuel tycoons and climate deniers-in-chief the Koch brothers have exerted their nefarious influence over US politics for decades.

Particularly notable was Charles Koch’s powerful part in a key 2022 US Supreme Court decision. The ruling restricted the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate carbon emissions. Naturally, this was a gift to big polluters.

Emissions soar for the US super-rich

The PLOS Climate study spotlighted the vast disparity in GHG emissions between the colossally rich and poor households across the US.

The study authors assessed not only the income that a household derived through direct employment, but also through its investments. Importantly, it distinguished between emissions households generated from both direct and indirect investments. This meant that the authors could attribute the full scope of the downstream emissions in the supply chains of a household’s holdings.

The new research also highlighted that while the top 10% of households had seen their emissions soar, the rest had been declining across the study period. Crucially, emissions had dropped an average of 38% for the bottom 50% of households.

Conversely, the top 1% had increased their GHG output. The top 0.9% of household earners had burgeoned their emissions by 43%. Worse still, the top 0.1% ballooned their emissions by a staggering 83% between 1990 and 2019.

‘Super emitters’

The study identified an elite carbon club of “super emitters”. These were primarily households in the top 0.1%, who were belching out over 3,000 tonnes of CO² equivalent throughout the most recent study year, 2019. For comparison, the bottom 10% of households produced 1.6 tonnes of CO² equivalent on average in 2019. This means that these “super emitters” were responsible for 1,875 times the amount of emissions of the bottom 10%.

Approximately 43,200 US households, equating to 34% of the top 0.1% of earners, hit “super emitter” status. On average, these heavy polluters had incomes of over $10.6m.

The majority of these were making their millions in finance, real estate, insurance, manufacturing, mining, and quarrying. However, the authors noted that:

income-based emissions are the result of both income and the GHG intensity of that income

In other words, investments in some highly polluting industries would make households more likely to meet the threshold of “super emitter”. For example, the study explained that a household making its fortune on hospitals would need to reap $18m to create 3,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent emissions. By contrast, it would require just $2.7m from the coal industry to do the same.

Glaring racial disparity

Of course, the gap between billionaires and the working class also brought the US’s blatant institutional racism into sharp relief.

The average white non-Hispanic household caused over two times the greenhouse gas emissions of the average Black household.

Partly, the study authors put this down to the fact that white non-Hispanic households were more likely to receive their income through employment and investments in highly polluting industries.

Yet, while Black households might not generally receive income from these climate-wrecking sectors, they sit at the frontlines of its toxic impact.

For instance, Louisiana hosts the US’s most egregious example of environmental racism. Over 150 petrochemical plants pump putrid gases into the air along an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi’s notorious “Cancer Alley” – so named due to the high risks of cancer in the area.

Naturally, Black households are heavily overrepresented in the poor communities living there. In fact, a May 2023 report identified that companies had situated the majority of Louisiana’s petrochemical plants in areas where Black people made up anywhere between 40 to 60% of the population. This is despite Black people making up around just 14% of US citizens nationally.

Least responsible with the most at stake

Ultimately, however, the authors attributed the marked difference in GHG output to:

the extreme racial inequity of the underlying income distribution.

Critically, it pointed to the fact that Black households make up a disproportionate share of the poorest households. Moreover, Black households account for just 3% of the top 1% of earners. Meanwhile white non-Hispanic people take up the lion’s share at 76%. White Hispanic households account for the remaining 8%.

To make matters worse, just as how the least responsible in the Global South have faced the brunt of the climate crisis, so too do these oppressed communities in the US suffer the unequal burden of its impacts.

For example, a 2022 report on New York found that Black residents were over two times more likely to die from heat stress than white inhabitants. Partly, this is due to US’s long history of racist ‘redlining’. This is the discriminatory devaluing of houses in majority Black neighbourhoods. This has exposed these communities to the disproportionate risks from urban heat, e.g., from a lack of shade-providing trees and greenery in poorer areas.

Meanwhile, during Hurricane Katrina – one of the US’s most deadly and destructive storms – flooding hit African American neighbourhoods most extensively. Moreover, the EPA has warned that the impacts of the climate crisis will continue to climb for racialised groups in the US.

Billionaire destroyers of the Earth

Ultimately, the super rich are destroying the planet. Their polluting profits push the world ever closer to a future of rampant and irreparable climate hell. Of course, their stinking riches have come at the expense of the most marginalised in society – which their destructive industries directly exploit and harm. As ever, the least responsible – Black working-class communities – will bear the brunt of their super-emitting greed.

Feature image via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia, cropped and resized to 1910×1000, image in the public domain.

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