The outrage came quickly when esthetician Kylie Jenner posted a photo last July of her and boyfriend Travis Scott surrounded by two private jets with the caption, “Do you want to take me or yours?”
“Europe is on fire, meanwhile Kylie Jenner is taking 15-minute trips in her private jet,” Eating disorder activist Kara Lisette wrote In just one of the many viral tweets about Jenner’s post. “I could recycle everything, buy all my used clothes, compost, and grow my own food for the rest of my life, and I wouldn’t even begin to make up for one of her trips.”
Jenner’s Instagram post showed some of the resentment brewing among young people in rich countries who feel pressure to lower their carbon footprint. It showed the disconnect between the world’s largest polluters and a generation afraid of climate change, angry at injustice and reluctant to abandon the unsustainable parts of their lifestyles.
“This is literally why I stopped trying,” books One Twitter user is 24 years old.
Businesswoman, reality TV star Kylie Jenner and rapper Travis Scott have faced intense criticism for flying short distances in private jets.
Recently, private jets owned by celebs like Taylor Swift and Kim Kardashian have flown distances that you could have covered in just a few hours. Their flights released more carbon dioxide in a matter of minutes than the average Indian emits in a year. Flight data shows that one night in early December, the two private jets of Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott made the same flight, landing at Van Nuys Airport in California in the United States, just 5 hours apart.
Even still, the celebrities’ emissions in the air are a fraction of those in the sea. Superyachts — like Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s 162-meter boat that comes with two helipads and a swimming pool — emit many times more carbon dioxide than most palaces, airplanes, and limousines combined. A study published in 2021 estimated that Abramovich’s yacht emitted more carbon dioxide in 2018 than Tuvalu, a Pacific island with a population of 11,000.
“This is particularly distressing, because island nations are also most at risk from the consequences of climate change such as rising sea levels,” said Beatrice Barros, a researcher at Indiana University who led the study.
Tuvalu is one of the island nations that prompted rich countries to set up a fund to pay for losses and damages caused by severe weather at the COP27 climate summit.
“Ridiculous” levels of carbon pollution
The largest disparities in carbon emissions over decades have been between rich and poor countries. Now, inequality within countries further explains the gap between clean and dirty lifestyles. The top 1% of earners globally – someone who earns an annual salary of around €124,000 ($132,000) – are responsible for a fifth of the growth in carbon pollution in the past 30 years. They live in cities from Miami to Mumbai.
“The top 1% basically use a similar amount as the bottom 50% of humanity – and clearly, just by volume, is a ridiculous percentage of the carbon budget,” said Anisha Nazareth, a scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute. (SEI) Study of Inequality in Emissions.
People who fall into the upper income bracket do not lead the lavish lifestyles of billionaires. But while private jets and giant yachts are in the extreme, cruise ships and commercial passenger planes are closing in from behind.
Hundreds of climate activists blocked an airport runway in the Netherlands in November, preventing private planes from taking off.
Flying, for example, is one of the most polluting activities in the world. Although flying makes up about 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions, it is the largest source of pollution for those who travel by plane. Experts estimate that only 2-4% of the world’s population gets on a plane each year.
In the same way that billionaires burn more fossil fuels than almost anyone else, “there are people in the world who rightfully see us in the same relative light,” said Ketan Joshi, a freelance writer and clean energy consultant, referring to middle-class people in rich countries. “You’re somebody’s Kylie Jenner.”
A “surprise boost” to affluent lifestyles
Researchers have discovered ways to fix this. By raising taxes, closing legal loopholes and cracking down on tax havens, policymakers can stop the rich from financing the carbon-intensive excesses of their lavish lifestyles. It would also provide more money to invest in the clean energy infrastructure needed to stop the planet’s warming.
But policies to raise taxes often face fierce opposition — even from those who would benefit from them. “In fact, we see a surprising boost to the lifestyles of the very wealthy,” said Stefan Gosling, a professor at Lund University in Sweden who has studied inequality in air travel emissions. People raised in cultures that worship the wealthy often oppose policies that restrict their lives.
The flight tax burden, for example, will hit mainly the wealthiest people – especially business travelers. In the European Union, half of spending on air travel comes from the richest 20%. In the United States and Canada, 19% of adults take more than four trips a year accounting for 79% of trips. Some scholars and politicians have called for a frequent travel tax, with each additional flight carrying a higher cost.
This inequality means that policies that tax flights can generate vital revenue from those best able to pay. A study published in October by the International Council on Clean Transportation, an environmental think tank, found that a global frequent flyer tax could generate the $121 billion needed in investments each year to decarbonize aviation through 2050. Frequent flyers who take more than six flights in Each year – and they make up only 2% of the population – they will pay 81% of it.
Policymakers can also reduce emissions from the richest people by banning private kerosene-fuelled aircraft. Such a ban would only affect a small percentage of flights, but it could prompt billionaires with money to spare to invest in the clean technologies needed for greener routes. Experts say early investments like this should help develop sustainable aviation fuels and electric flight for all, scaling them up sooner and bringing costs down faster.
The researchers also stress that the top 1% of earners – and even the top 10% earn €37,200 a year – should not limit climate action to what they buy.
Studies have shown that placing solar panels on rooftops encourages neighbors to do the same
A study published in Nature in 2021 found that wealthy people play a key role in slowing climate change as consumers, investors, role models, institutional participants, and citizens. That could mean taking savings out of banks that lend to fossil fuel companies, campaigning for public transit at a local council meeting, or pressing their company management to replace business trips with virtual meetings.
“If these people in the upper echelon of society, who are measured by income and influence, actively work on that, we will see changes happen much faster than we see today,” said Christian Nielsen, a climate scientist and lead author of the study. “This is not available to the average person.”
But it also works the other way. Some of the world’s richest people and companies have poured money into lobbying against policies that threaten fossil fuels. For the rich, SEI’s Nazareth said, “the biggest problem is the way they wield political influence through campaign donations — and generally influence the lifestyles of everyone else.”
Edited by: Jennifer Collins