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Just how big are Elon Musk and Bill Gates’ carbon footprints? You might be surprised

Tesla’s Elon Musk and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos have been vying for the world’s richest person ranking all year after the former’s wealth soared a staggering US$160 billion in 2020, putting him briefly in the top spot.

Musk isn’t alone in seeing a significant increase in wealth during a year of pandemic, recession, and death. Altogether, the world’s billionaires saw their wealth surge over $1.9 trillion in 2020, according to Forbes.

Those are astronomical numbers, and it’s hard to get one’s head around them without some context. As anthropologists who study energy and consumer culture, we wanted to examine how all that wealth translated into consumption and the resulting carbon footprint.

Walking in a billionaire’s shoes

We found that billionaires have carbon footprints that can be thousands of times higher than those of average Americans.

The wealthy own yachts, planes, and multiple mansions, all of which contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. For example, a superyacht with a permanent crew, helicopter pad, submarines, and pools emits about 7,020 tons of CO2 a year, according to our calculations, making it by the far worst asset to own from an environmental standpoint. Transportation and real estate make up the lion’s share of most people’s carbon footprint, so we focused on calculating those categories for each billionaire.