Elon Musk may be trading places with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos these days for the title of the world’s richest person by net worth, but the Tesla and SpaceX CEO also holds a unique place among his fellow billionaires. Based on estimates from anthropologists from Indiana University, Elon Musk may very well be one of the billionaires with the smallest carbon footprint.
Critics of Elon Musk would argue that the Tesla and SpaceX CEO’s carbon footprint is excessive due to his frequent travels with his private jet. However, Richard Wilk, the director of the Open Anthropology Institute at Indiana University, and Beatriz Barros, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Indiana University, noted in an analysis that Musk’s carbon footprint is actually quite small relative to his fellow billionaires. This is because, unlike other billionaires, Musk owns no luxury superyachts or custom-made, sprawling mansions.
Wilk and Barros opted to analyze a number of billionaires from the 2020 Forbes List, particularly those whose consumption is public knowledge. This excluded a good number of the super-rich in Asia and the Middle-East, but it still provided a good sample of billionaires from across the globe. To estimate each billionaire’s carbon footprint, the anthropologists used data from the US Energy Information Administration and Carbon Footprint. Together with some extensive research, this allowed the pair to estimate the annual CO2 emissions of each house, aircraft, yacht, and vehicle publicly declared by each billionaire.
On average, US residents pollute about 15 tons of CO2 per year as of 2018, though the average global footprint per person is smaller at just about 5 tons annually. The 20 billionaires who were included in the study, for their part, contributed an average of 8,190 tons of CO2 in 2018. But even among this list, some billionaires polluted significantly more than others. And as it turned out, those who owned massive luxury yachts tend to consume significantly more than those who did not.
Roman Abramovich, the owner of London’s Chelsea Football Club and a man who made most of his $19 billion fortune trading oil and gas, proved to be the biggest polluter in the anthropologists’ list with at least 33,859 metric tons of CO2 emissions in 2018. This is due in no small part to his luxury superyacht, the Eclipse, which at 162.5 meters bow to stern is practically a small, private cruise ship. He also travels across the globe in a custom-designed Boeing 767 with a 30-seat dining room, as well as his Gulfstream G650 jet. Abramovich also uses two helicopters and a submarine on his yacht. On top of this, the oil and gas magnate boasts several properties, such as a 28-hectare estate in St. Barts that once belonged to David Rockefeller.
Bill Gates, a huge advocate for sustainability, consumes far less carbon than Abramovich, but his emissions still tower over those of Elon Musk. Gates maintains a $127 million estate in Medina, Washington named Xanadu, which covers 6,131 square meters and amenities like a 23-car garage, a 20-person cinema, and 24 bathrooms. Gates also owns a horse farm, four private jets, a seaplane, and several helicopters. The anthropologists estimate that Gates’ annual carbon footprint stands at 7,493 tons, mostly due to his flying.
For his part, Elon Musk owns no yachts, and the CEO has noted that he does not take many vacations. The Tesla and SpaceX CEO was estimated to have a rather billionaire-modest carbon footprint of 2,084 tons in 2018, which was hundreds of times higher than the average American but significantly smaller than his fellow billionaires. Interestingly enough, Musk’s carbon footprint may have also gotten considerably lower as of late, considering that he sold all of his houses in 2020 and he promised to divest his worldly possessions. Ultimately, Musk, who is currently worth about $190 billion or ten times that of billionaires like Abramovich, proves that even the super-rich can make choices to ensure that they live as sustainably as possible.
Read Wilk and Barros’ analysis of billionaires’ carbon footprint here.
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