The carbon footprint of the wealthy in the UK is disproportionately large due to their frequent visits to restaurants, ownership of pets, and holiday travel.
According to information shared with the Guardian, individuals in the UK with higher incomes tend to have much larger carbon footprints due to factors such as frequenting restaurants, owning pets, and taking trips abroad.
The biggest carbon divide is in aviation, with the richest 10% in the UK – the 6.7 million people paid more than £59,000 a year – causing more than six times more climate-heating emissions from flights than the poorest 10%. Spending on electrical items, homeware and furniture also contributes to the outsize impact of the wealthy, who splash out four times more on these goods.
According to the data, there is a clear difference between generations, with baby boomers having the largest and fastest-growing carbon footprints compared to Generation X and millennials. The most significant difference in carbon footprints is observed between London and the rest of the UK, as those living in the capital have significantly lower footprints due to better access to public transportation.
Experts state that acknowledging disparities in carbon emissions is crucial for achieving fairness and effectiveness in addressing climate change. It is noted that those who are wealthy bear the greatest responsibility for reducing emissions and have the resources to do so, while those who are impoverished may resist policies that further strain their already difficult lives.
Dr. Anne Owen, an expert on carbon footprints from the University of Leeds, explains that there is a significant variation in the size of individuals’ carbon footprints. The wealthy tend to have much larger footprints due to their frequent air travel, as well as indulging in luxury services such as dining and accommodations. These services can range from fine dining to financial services.
According to Owen, the implementation of government levies on household energy bills to fund net zero initiatives highlights the issue of disregarding the significant divide in carbon emissions. He believes that placing a carbon tax or levy on home energy is counterproductive.
According to Owen’s study, households with the lowest income allocate 10% of their earnings towards heating and powering their homes, while those with higher income spend less than 1.5%. This means that the rise in prices affects low-income families more heavily, despite their significantly lower carbon emissions.
According to her, an alternative approach would be to impose taxes on air travel, which would result in the wealthiest individuals paying a significant amount. Another option would be to simply add it onto income tax, as it is already structured to correspond with people’s earnings. This second choice would lower energy costs for 65% of households.
According to her, the affluent members of society have the ability to switch to electric cars without significantly altering their lifestyle. This change can greatly reduce their carbon emissions. Therefore, the government’s decision to postpone the deadline for the end of sales of traditional combustion-engine cars is nonsensical.
Owen’s research is derived from data collected by the Office for National Statistics. The results reveal that the wealthiest 10% have a significant impact on the environment through their frequent travel. In addition to taking more flights, they also use trains more frequently and their car usage contributes three times the amount of emissions compared to the poorest 10%.
The environmental effects of going to restaurants and hotels are significantly greater for the top 10% of income earners, with their pet care and hobbies resulting in three times more carbon emissions. Studies have shown that pets who consume meat-based diets can have carbon footprints equivalent to those of their owners. The disparity in emissions related to household energy and food consumption is not as significant, with the wealthy emitting approximately 50% more than the average person.
Owen’s analysis of the carbon footprints of different generations over the last two decades shows baby boomers having the biggest impact. “It’s when people retire and start flying a lot. Children also leave the nest, so their home energy footprint gets larger because it’s shared out between fewer people, and they are still living in large houses,” she said. “As baby boomers die out, footprints could go down.”
Since 2000, the younger generation known as Millennials have grown in terms of their influence compared to the rest of the UK population due to becoming homeowners and starting families. However, their impact on the environment is still significantly lower than that of the previous generation known as baby boomers. According to Owen, this could be attributed to Millennials not attaining the same level of wealth as their predecessors.
The footprints of Generation X and the older Silent Generation have remained consistent for the past two decades, likely due to their current life stages being settled, with either growing families or retirement.
In comparison to the rest of the country, London stands out as an exception with a 15% decrease in per capita environmental impact. According to Owen, this can be attributed to the city’s extensive public transportation system. This means that even in the wealthiest areas, the carbon footprint is relatively smaller due to less dependence on cars.
According to her, the implementation of the Ulez program in 2019 resulted in a significant decrease in emissions from private cars entering the city center, as it charges those that are polluting.
According to Ruth Townend, a researcher at the UK-based think tank Chatham House, taking a passive stance on promoting sustainable lifestyles unfairly puts those who are already disadvantaged and vulnerable in society at a further disadvantage.
The rising cost of fossil fuels, gasoline, and home heating disproportionately affects low-income households. These households do not consume a significant amount of energy and cannot afford to waste it, leaving them with limited options to reduce their carbon footprint. In contrast, those who are financially comfortable can easily afford the higher prices and maintain their previous level of fuel usage.