Laurence Tubiana: The wealthy need to pay up for the climate crisis

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The super-rich are some of the biggest polluters in the world, thanks to their continued investments in high-emissions industries and penchant for private jets. At the same time, they include among their number some of the most influential people and groups in guiding climate policies. 

At some point, the wealthy need to be held accountable for the climate crisis—and that could mean paying to address it, says Laurence Tubiana, French economist and a key architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. She’s also the CEO of the philanthropic organization European Climate Foundation.

The richest 1% was responsible for the same amount of carbon emissions in 2019 as nearly 65% of the world’s poorest, a study by Oxfam International found last year, with billionaires contributing a million times more than the average person.

Such stark statistics warrant stricter action on the part of the ultra-rich, Tubiana argues. 

“This inequality is true not only between developed countries and developing ones, but within each country – the 1% of rich Chinese, or the 1% of very rich Indians, or the U.S. citizen – they have a lifestyle which is very, very similar, in terms of overconsumption,” she told The Guardian. “That’s where your carbon footprint comes in.”  

The question of holding the rich accountable for their emissions has long dominated the broader climate debate. 

Climate activist Mitzi Jonelle Tan from the Philippines is among those who see the current climate situation as a product of the rich’s greed. Greta Thunberg has also argued that a bigger carbon footprint warrants greater responsibility. 

“It’s legitimate to talk about taxation, with the immense elements of climate impact, and the need to mobilize more funding to respond to the transition [to a low-carbon economy] and adaptation [to the impacts of extreme weather],” Tubiana said. 

Fight against time

Decarbonizaton is a staggeringly expensive undertaking that will take many years. France projected that a net-zero transition would cost it €66 billion ($71.7 billion) a year, with some suggesting a wealth tax to raise the necessary funds. Other governments, such as the U.S. Biden administration, have proposed similar ideas.

While, in theory, it makes sense to tax those with the most money—and the biggest carbon footprints—some counter that wealth taxes can have a destabilizing effect (the rich just leave), stifle the long-term growth needed to pay for the transition (why invest if you don’t see a reward?), or just fail to raise much money (the wealthier you are, the better your tax accountants).

Several alternatives have been proposed, including a frequent flier levy aimed at the rich, who not only travel the most, but also clearly disproportionately use private jets or fly first class. Even then though, it’s not straightforward. 

For example, billionaire investor and philanthropist Bill Gates has faced criticism of his private jet use, but defended it on the grounds that it helps him make targeted climate-change-fighting investments that more than compensate for his emissions.

“I spend billions of dollars on … climate innovation. So, you know, should I stay at home and not come to Kenya and learn about farming and malaria?” Gates told the BBC.

Governments may not have a consensus on how to do it, but there is nonetheless a growing acknowledgment that we need to take action on a larger scale than we have to date.

The COP29 summit later this year could help push the conversation forward on how to raise the necessary money for climate-related efforts.  

In the meantime, we can only wait for concrete steps to fight climate change, whether private jets are involved or not.

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