Top 0.1% of America’s Wealthiest Emit 62 Times More Than Average US Household

"New Study Calls for Carbon Tax on America's Wealthiest to Curb Emissions"

New Study Suggests Wealthiest Americans Should Be Taxed for Carbon Emissions

A recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst has revealed that America’s wealthiest individuals, whose investment income contributes significantly to the nation’s carbon emissions, should be subject to taxation. The researchers found that the top 0.1% of the richest Americans emit a staggering 3,000 tons of carbon annually, which is equivalent to over 62 times the emissions of a typical American household, amounting to 48 tons. The study, published in PLOS Climate, aims to shift the focus from how emissions enable consumption to how they create income. By examining extensive datasets spanning 30 years, the researchers established the relationship between income and carbon emissions, urging US lawmakers to reconsider current carbon taxation policies to address climate change.

The study’s model provided a carbon footprint for every dollar of economic activity in the United States. This was achieved by analyzing inter-sectoral financial transfers and their associated flow of income and carbon emissions. The researchers determined two different values for income-based carbon emissions: supplier value and producer value. The former refers to emissions from industries and companies that supply fossil fuels, while the latter represents carbon emissions directly emitted from business operations. This information was then linked to households using data on industries of employment and earnings. The study is groundbreaking as it is the first to establish a connection between income from financial investments and the carbon emissions generated by those investments.

The study uncovered several key insights. For 90% of Americans, wages from employment provide the necessary funds for their livelihood and discretionary spending. Carbon emissions for these individuals are predominantly associated with their salaries and are typically lower and middle-income households. However, for the wealthiest 10% (comprising the top 1% and the next 9% income group), the majority of their income is derived passively from investments. Shockingly, the researchers discovered that over 40% of the nation’s carbon emissions can be attributed to the income of this top 10%. These affluent individuals earn more than $178,000 annually. Furthermore, the study revealed that higher-income groups contribute more to pollution through their investment income. Specifically, the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans are responsible for up to 17% of the country’s total emissions. This group earns over $550,000 per year. The study also highlighted the existence of a super-emitter group within the top 0.1% of the population. These extremely wealthy Americans generate most of their income from investments in finance, insurance, and mining industries. Their investment income accounts for over 50% of the nation’s emissions, amounting to approximately 3,000 tons of carbon annually. In comparison, the emissions limit for each person to mitigate global warming is 2.3 tons per year, while the average American household emits 48 tons per year.

The study further emphasized that income size is not the sole contributor to climate change; the industries from which income is derived also play a significant role. For instance, a household earning $980,000 from fossil fuel industries is considered a super-emitter. On the other hand, a household sourcing income from the hospital industry would need to earn $11 million to generate the same amount of carbon emissions. These findings have important implications for policymakers. Lead author Jared Starr highlighted the relevance of their research, stating, “This research gives us insight into the way that income and investments obscure emissions responsibility… An income-based lens helps us focus on exactly who is profiting the most from climate-changing carbon pollution and design policies to shift their behavior.”

In light of these findings, the researchers recommend that governments reconsider their approach to carbon taxation. Instead of focusing on taxing consumer goods and services, policymakers should hold shareholders accountable for the carbon emissions resulting from their investment income. The authors believe that a shareholder-based taxation system can effectively contribute to the goal of limiting global temperature levels to 1.5°C. According to Starr, consumption-based taxation fails to address a crucial aspect of carbon emissions and is regressive in nature, disproportionately affecting the poor while having minimal impact on the wealthiest individuals, as a significant portion of their income is saved or reinvested. For example, the top 1% of household earners, responsible for 15-17% of national emissions, emit carbon pollution that is 2.5 times higher than their consumer-related emissions (6%). Conversely, the bottom 50% of American earners, who contribute 31% of national emissions, emit carbon pollution that is 2 times higher than their income-based emissions (14%). As income distribution increases, from the top 10% to the top 0.1%, carbon emissions generated from investments surpass those generated from salaries. Therefore, the authors suggest that carbon taxes targeting shareholder income linked to carbon emissions would be a more reasonable approach. This would incentivize wealthy individuals, who profit significantly from carbon-intensive investments such as oil and gas, to decarbonize their industries. The government could then utilize the tax revenues to invest in decarbonization initiatives.

In conclusion, the study conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst sheds light on the need to tax the income of America’s wealthiest individuals in order to address their significant contribution to carbon emissions. By focusing on shareholder-based taxation rather than consumption-based taxation, policymakers can place the responsibility on those who profit the most from carbon-intensive investments. These findings provide valuable insights for designing effective policies to combat climate change and shift behavior towards a more sustainable future.

Matt Lyons

Matt Lyons

Matt Lyons is the founder of Forestry & Carbon. Matt has over 25 years as a forestry consultant and is invoilved in numerous carbon credit offset projects.

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