It's no surprise that the richest 1 per cent have large ecological footprints. But what may come as a shock is that concentrating wealth in their hands may actually be good for the planet. While those with outsized fortunes also tend to have an outsized environmental impact, their carbon output does not keep pace with their wealth (see diagram). Beyond a certain level, they aren't spending their additional cash in ways that take an environmental toll. But if that money were more evenly distributed, it could mean slightly bigger carbon footprints for many more people, which would soon add up.
Last year, economist Marc Lee at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-profit organisation in Ottawa, Canada, analysed data from the collection of a carbon tax in British Columbia, and concluded that the top 1 per cent of households have carbon emissions three times the provincial average. That difference is considerable, but also considerably less than the disparity in Canadian incomes. According to 2007 figures, the top 1 per cent had more than 10 times the average income.
The breakdown is similar elsewhere. British analyst Chris Goodall, author ofHow to Live a Low-Carbon Life, did not get down to the top 1 per cent, but he did find that the top 10 per cent in the UK spend nearly 6 times as much each week as the bottom 10 per cent. Still, their carbon footprint is only 2.4 times higher.
How come? Goodall found that the richest 10 per cent spend a great deal more than their fellow mortals on travel, especially air travel. Compared with the poorest 10 per cent, they spend 10 times more on air travel. But otherwise a bigger income did not translate into a commensurately bigger carbon footprint. Why not? The rich spend a lot more on food, for instance, but they don't eat much more than other folk, so their food footprint isn't much above average. Similarly, they may buy better-made goods that require more labour, but the same amount of material inputs as the cheaper alternatives. Personal services such as cleaners and gardeners are also low-carbon ways of spending money, as is the purchase of property.
A final element in the equation, says Goodall, is that while those on lower socioeconomic rungs spend most of their money soon after receiving it, the richest tend to squirrel away their loot.
None of this excuses planetary profligacy, but it does raise the unexpected and bewildering thought that shovelling money to the rich could be the most environmentally sound way of distributing it.