By the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research (CRESR), Sheffield Hallam University, UK 

As the dust settles on COP26 and the climate crisis deepens, it’s a good time to explore a topic that arises whenever such events trigger a concentration wealthy people traveling via private jets.

Champagne flutes

Plotted vertically and horizontally, data tracking income and CO2 emissions between 1990 and 2015 suggest those most likely to drink champagne have exponentially higher carbon footprints. ©Myriams-Fotos

Compared with the average person, high net-worth individuals (HNWIs – or simply ‘high consumers’ in this article) use more energy and having bigger carbon footprints. And the gap is growing.

On all counts, ‘more’ and ‘bigger’ can be measured exponentially. In 2010, the 10% most affluent households emitted 34% of global CO2, while the 50% of global population in lower income brackets accounted for just 15%.[1] By 2015 – just five years later – the disparity had stretched to 49% against 7% (Figure 1).[2] Tracked back to 1990, those data – with income arranged vertically and corresponding shares of CO2 emissions shown horizontally – neatly trace a telling silhouette, i.e. ‘the champagne glass of carbon inequality’.[3]

Figure 1 ● The ‘champagne glass’ of global carbon inequality in 1990 and 2015.[4]

Beyond massive carbon footprints, high consumers pose a second challenge: they also set social and material aspirations for people who want to be perceived as successful. The disparity of ecological footprints across social classes is also seen among nations: at both scales, the wealthy generate more negative environmental impacts than lower income groups.[5] And that suggests the environment is in for a solid trampling as both population and income levels increase.

For these reasons, we believe it’s time for serious action to understand high consumers: who they are, what drives them and what makes them hard to reach? In turn, we need to ask how policy might trigger change.

What makes high consumers high emitters?

In developed countries, domestic energy use and private transport are the main sources of individual environmental impacts.[6]

The physical aspects of the home, along with the knowledge, routines and values of the occupants, drive domestic energy use. High consumers tend to ‘go big’ to ‘go home’.[7] In this slice of energy data, the bottom half of the population accounts for <20% of final demand, less than the top 5% consumes.[8] While their homes may be more energy efficient, high consumers have more space to heat. They also own and use more luxury items and more gadgets – including multiples of some (e.g. entertainment centres, fridges).[9]

A luxury home cinema.

The rich also have more devices that consume high volumes of energy – and sometimes multiples of gadgets and appliances that sit on ‘stand-by’, consuming some electricity 24/7.

High use of energy for private transport is directly linked to social practices that high consumers also engage in more often, including commuting further to work, shopping, educational activities, leisure, etc. In the US, for example, the 10% of households with the highest incomes emit ~12 MtCO2/yr from using gasoline, against just 3.6 MtCO2/yr for the 10% with the lowest income.[10]

Airplane flying over skyscrapers.

Globally, more than 50% of emissions from passenger aviation were linked to the 1% of people who fly most often. ©sasint

Flying too far or too often has garnered condemnation in recent years. And while one might assume that low-cost airlines opened the world to more adventurers, it is more the case that it enabled seasoned travellers to do it more often for less cost (Fig. 2). Before Covid-19 grounded everyone, in most countries less than half of people reported flying at least once per year while more than 50% of emissions from passenger aviation were linked to the 1% of people who fly most often.[11], [12]

Pie charts showing number of flights per year in relation to income for UK households. High income = more flights.

Figure 2 ● Number of international flights in 2019 by income (UK).[13]

What drives high consumption?

Desire to demonstrate social status[14] and the internalisation of societal expectations have been linked to high consumption, as have things like habit, emotion, coercion,[15] and psychological aspects or personality traits.[16]

But putting the blame on individuals misses the heavy influence of the culture of consumerism and all that feeds into it – advertising, materialism and the capitalist economic system – to promote a set of lifestyle values that overlook (or consciously disregard) how excess consumption negatively impacts personal, social and ecological well-being.[17]

These two elements – personal and societal influences – suggest that to change behaviour, it may be necessary to challenge existing habits and break societal norms, confronting the idea that having things is the path to happiness.

Hard to reach, but for very different reasons

As part of efforts to achieve a ‘just, clean energy transition’, much research has focused on ways to engage with ‘hard-to-reach consumers’ – typically considered those who under-consume because the combination of low incomes, poor-quality homes and energy pricing makes it difficult to afford what would be considered ‘sufficient’ energy supply for health and well-being.

In reality, high consumers represent the biggest opportunity to reduce emissions from energy and transportation. But convincing them to change comes requires overcoming substantial challenges. Some may be completely disconnected from the reality of the climate crisis; others may not engage with information about sustainable consumption (perhaps because such messaging rarely targets this audience). They may also ‘feel’ the consequences of climate change less, as it is easier for them to absorb the costs associated with climate adaptation. In fact, even having to pay environmental taxes may have a negligible effect. The bottom line is that high consumers can afford to keep polluting. [18], [19]

Massive staircase in a mansion, showing huge volume of space that needs to be heated or cooled.

Grand homes require large volumes of energy for heating and cooling; arguably, energy pricing and carbon taxes will have little impact on consumption of the rich, who can absorb the higher costs.

Who decides what is excessive?

The notion that this segment of the population ‘overconsumes’ raises the loaded question of what represents an adequate standard of living. In the UK, even average consumers consider that buying birthday presents, consuming alcohol and eating out are minimum necessities – a finding that likely applies to most developed countries.[20]

To date, there is no widely accepted, clear definition of overconsumption in academic literature. Some studies identify quantitative classifications or look at specific resources, and most recognise that it is context-dependent and often linked to psychological traits. Some suggest that a certain consumption level becomes ‘overconsumption’ only if the quest for material goods and services does not lead to happiness.

Arguably, those in the lowest income groups would have the most to gain in well-being from increased consumption. This can be linked to the concept of welfare, especially the well-being of others (whether current peers or future generations), such that the decision to shift to sustainable consumption practices would be guided by certain moral choices, reflecting how people experience the world now and how they wish it to be in future.

Policy making to reshape consumption practices

Bearing in mind we live on a finite Planet, policy-makers and economists who seek to address environmental and social issues while arguing for sustained perpetual quantitative growth (measured in GNP or GDP) are, in our opinion, acting without engaging in necessary debates. At the opposite end of the spectrum, degrowth proponents emphasise meeting basic human needs and ensuring a ‘good life’,[21] while reducing impacts on the environment to a sustainable level and building a fair system for all. This approach involves valuing well-being, sustainability and equity indicators over GDP when assessing progress, noting that the consequent decrease in material and energy consumption would likely drive GDP down.[22] We would argue that sufficiency, rather than development or degrowth, should inform policy-making.[23] The concept of energy sufficiency is based on the idea that everyone has access to the quantity and quality of energy services they need and to a ‘fair share’ of the energy services while ensuring the impacts of energy systems do not exceed environmental limits. [24]

Clearly, households with higher incomes have greater potential to achieve positive impacts through lifestyle changes, reducing their use of resources associated emissions with minimal consequences for their well-being. But most people do not want to embrace voluntary simplicity or scale down access to goods and services they consider enrich their lives.[25]

To date, most countries do not recognise high consumption as an issue requiring specific policy initiatives, whether due to oversight, lack of understanding or an explicit decision for ideological and political reasons (including the constant drive for economic growth). Many cities have set net-zero targets, with a strong focus on technology and infrastructure policies, but few efforts directly tackle behavioural factors and none explicitly address high-income households.[26] As high consumption and large carbon footprints are spatially concentrated in high-income cities and suburbs – while their negative effects (i.e. displaced air pollution) typically spill over into less affluent areas – this may be the most important arena for policy action.[27]

Aerial view of Moscow, Russia, at night showing population density.

City skylines, in this case Moscow, highlight how high energy consumers tend to be concentrated in urban areas, where they also commute longer distances for work and leisure activities.

But current efforts are missing the mark. In fact, some are shown to negatively impact vulnerable households while having little influence on middle and high-income households.[28],[29],[30] Price mechanisms may force low-income households to cut back consumption to dangerous levels, while those in higher income brackets benefit from more efficient equipment.[31] Similarly, roll-out of in-house displays (IHDs) to track energy consumption and costs seem unlikely to change the behaviour of high-income households but may prompt ‘hyper-consciousness’ among low-income households. These examples raise the question of whether more sensitised energy policy instruments are needed for different households.

Shifting towards a sustainable society will require significant cultural, material and behavioural changes at different levels (in households, businesses, etc.). Ultimately, effective policy measures would require ‘cracking’ the false belief that owning and using an ever-growing range of goods and services is the path to achieving personal happiness, status and national success, as well as a normal motivation and an acceptable cultural desire. Going forward, it may be helpful to distinguish among ‘citizens’ as people willing to serve the common good, ‘consumers’ who prioritise seeking pleasure, and ‘consumer-citizens’ who engage with political issues through conscientious consumption. [32]


Aimee Ambrose, Professor of Energy Policy, The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Alvaro Castano Garcia, PhD candidate, The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Anna Hawkins, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Social Science, Department of Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Stephen Parkes, Research Fellow, The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Mia Rafalowicz-Campbell, PhD candidate, The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, Sheffield Hallam University, UK

Marilyn Smith, Executive Director, The Energy Action Project (EnAct) and ORENDA Communications


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