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“Carbon Billionaires”: Oxfam Calls for Taxing Rich Who Profit from Emissions Fueling Climate Crisis

StoryNovember 11, 2022
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A new Oxfam analysis finds the investments of the world’s richest people are emitting 3 million tons a year — more than a million times the average person’s output. The report, titled “Carbon Billionaires,” suggests a wealth tax could help fund urgent climate action in developing countries. The analysis shows “how much power and control a few people have over our economic system and, beyond that, our way of life, our survival as humanity,” says Ashfaq Khalfan, climate justice director at Oxfam America. Khalfan also responds to U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s new carbon offset proposal, which he calls a “distraction” that will delay action on public financing of climate action.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

As President Biden arrives at the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, then heads to the G20 meeting in Bali, Indonesia, a new Oxfam analysis looks at the investments of 125 of the world’s richest billionaires and reveals that, on average, they’re emitting 3 million tons a year of carbon — more than a million times the average person. The report is titled “Carbon Billionaires” and suggests a wealth tax could help curb the urgent climate finance needs of developing countries.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by the report’s co-author, Ashfaq Khalfan, climate justice director at Oxfam America.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! So, tell us who the climate billionaires are and just how much carbon dioxide they are emitting.

ASHFAQ KHALFAN: The carbon billionaires represent household names, billionaires who you can imagine who they are. So, we looked at the richest 220 people and assessed which of them there was data for the emissions from their investments. So these are not emissions from their personal lifestyles — the private jets, the large houses — but from where they decide to put their money. And, you know, we find that they tend to do it more in polluting industries rather than in clean industries, twice the average investor.

And so, the amounts are staggering. I mean, the amount emitted by one of these average billionaires is the same as, you know, the equivalent of 4 million people going vegan, and thus not — and reducing their emissions, or flying around the Earth 16 million times in a private jet. The amounts are just staggering. And we were surprised. And it just goes to show how much power and control a few people have over our economic system and, beyond that, our way of life, our survival as humanity.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you say, the investments of 125 billionaires produce 393 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year, equivalent CO2 output to the entire country of France, makes the average billionaires’ annual emissions a million times higher than a person in the poorest 90% of the world’s population.

So, number one, how is this curbed? And number two, what is Oxfam right now — this report, released during the U.N. climate summit, which Democracy Now! will be broadcasting from live all next week in Sharm el-Sheikh — what are you demanding at this point? What do you think can change the course of who is destroying the planet and how to turn that around?

ASHFAQ KHALFAN: The answer really lies with governments. They have the power to regulate the billionaires in a couple of ways. One is through a wealth tax. That will actually raise money, reduce the extent of the control of the billionaires and raise a huge amount of money. It could raise something like $1.4 trillion a year. That’s a significant amount. And that could pay for the annual requirements to help poor countries adapt to climate change, protect their people from climate change, address the — repair the harms caused — you know, repairing the schools, helping people rebuild their lives — and contribute to the transition to clean energy, renewable energy across the world. That could be done just with a wealth tax.

We’re not only recommending that. We’re also recommending a tax on the profits from fossil fuels, from corporate taxes, as well as the earnings of billionaires — not a temporary tax, but one which is permanent and would create an incentive for these billionaires to shift their funds to cleaner sources of energy. In fact, they should actually be funding the renewable energy revolution, and they’re not — they’re just not doing that. So, governments have the power to leverage these changes. They can also require companies to reduce their emissions, to shift to science-based targets, even report their emissions.

By the way, I should say that the emissions that we’ve talked about, these are an underestimate. These are only their reported emissions. This is only what they admit to. And it’s only their direct emissions. It doesn’t include the emissions from their products. So we’ve taken a very, very conservative approach, so that we can be absolutely sure about the numbers. But it’s an underestimate. And it doesn’t even include the emissions that come from the policies that billionaires are pushing, you know, in terms of their funding of politicians and what they ask politicians to do when they pick up the phone.

AMY GOODMAN: Ashfaq, you tweeted about what the U.S. Climate Ambassador John Kerry has just announced at the U.N. climate summit. The whole Biden team has just arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh. Wednesday was finance day at COP27. The U.S. Climate Ambassador Kerry took the opportunity to make a pitch to help developing economies transition from coal to clean energy. He proposed creating a new carbon market, a way for corporations to fund efforts to decommission coal plants and build wind and solar projects in exchange for carbon credits that can be used to bolster their green image. Now, there’s also a lot of criticism of this.

ASHFAQ KHALFAN: That’s right. I mean, first of all, you know, his intentions are — it’s good he’s trying to do that, but he’s going about it the wrong way. Those carbon credits are illusory. It’s very unlikely that it’s going to generate anything like the amount of money that’s required to fund that transition. Carbon credits, there’s a long history of them being a mirage, used as false solutions, really, by a lot of the fossil fuel interests to avoid action, to delay action. And there’s no reason to believe that this would be any different.

It’s really a pity that they are distracting from what they really need to do, which is to raise the public finance, which is needed. If governments put on the table a significant amount of public finance, that will draw in the private investments that’s needed. And that’s, essentially, the way it needs to be done.

You know, during COP — and you’ll probably see this next week, as well, when you’re there — Secretary Kerry keeps talking about how difficult it is to get the money out of Congress. In fact, he said a couple of times that, “Oh, you know, if the Republicans win Congress, we won’t be able to — that’s the end of climate finance,” which, you know, that’s a pity that he’s talking down what can be achieved. And he’s proposing alternative solutions that could then be taken up by those who are opposed to international climate finance, but, unfortunately, will just not work.

The thing is, we don’t have time to wait and see it not work. It’s too urgent to provide the money really quickly, really soon. And so, we are saying that Secretary Kerry and President Biden have to make climate finance a nonnegotiable in Congress and make the hard case. You know, they can be strong when they want to. They’ve done it before, throughout their lives. And they need to do so now, because it may seem like something technical or something remote from the concerns of the average American, but I think average Americans know the climate crisis will affect them and everybody else. And climate finance is necessary. We won’t be able to protect people across the world if developing countries don’t have the resources they need to shift to renewable energy. So it’s existential for everybody, and it’s a worthwhile investment to be making.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about this new AP report that says, “The war-inspired natural gas boom is undermining already insufficient efforts to limit future warming to just a few more tenths of a degree. … Planning and [build-up] of liquified and other natural gas — due to an energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — would add 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent … a year to the air by 2030.” This is according to a report that came out of Climate Action Tracker at the U.N. climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh. Your response?

ASHFAQ KHALFAN: Well, they’re absolutely right. And it’s really great that you’re talking about this. It is a real worry. There is a gas shortage in Europe, and that’s genuine. There are energy needs every day, and people — those needs need to be met. But what’s pretty despicable is seeing a lot of fossil fuel interests take advantage of that to promote growth, which is not — growth in fossil fuel infrastructure, which is not necessary to meet the urgent needs of — the energy needs of today. Things are shown to have come online in the next few years but will exist in a decade as carbon assets that will be used.

Governments really should instead be doubling down on energy efficiency, on the switch to renewables, doing things — you know, insulating homes, things that can be done really quickly within a six-month time frame, reducing that energy demand and providing people, everybody, with the support, the information, the subsidies that are required to do that. That’s the way. That’s the solution to the natural gas crisis.

It is really disappointing that in the United States we see permitting reform being pushed as a solution, when it’s a false solution and one which will really safeguard fossil fuel interests, including the carbon billionaires, many of whom are actually pushing these sorts of changes at the expense of communities whose rights — you know, Indigenous people — will be harmed.

AMY GOODMAN: Ashfaq, we only have 10 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Have any of the carbon billionaires responded to your report?

ASHFAQ KHALFAN: Not that I’m aware of. I’m sure they will.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Ashfaq Khalfan is climate justice director at Oxfam America, co-author of the new report, “Carbon Billionaires.” We will link to that report. He was speaking to us from London.

Democracy Now! is headed to Sharm el-Sheikh, where all next week we will be covering the U.N. climate summit there in Egypt, bringing you reports from on the ground inside and outside the summit.

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Special thanks to our executive director, Julie Crosby.

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