How many billionaires would it take to save the planet?
Perhaps you’ve asked yourself this looming question in the midst of a climate anxiety attack, or maybe you compartmentalize the environment from having any sort of dollar value in your mind. Either way, how wonderful would it be if we could just write a check and make all of our problems go away. The funny thing about Nature, though, is that she doesn’t accept any form of payment, and she works in unexpected ways. Nonetheless, economists and modelers around the world have tried their best to quantify the price tag associated with saving the planet–whether or not that is an attainable feat is an entirely different conversation.
Investing in the Climate Crisis and Conservation
The lucky number is based in part on the fact that in order to achieve our climate goals and maintain our stance within two degrees of warming, “something nearly every country committed to with the Paris Agreement, we need to reduce emissions by 197 billion tons in the next decade.” Factoring in the cost of carbon ($20-100) and a slew of other necessary mitigatory expenses, most estimates of saving the world are about 2% of the global GDP on an annual basis, or about $1.7 trillion.. Although projections range quite broadly between about $300 billion and $50 trillion over the next two decades.
For the sake of simplicity, then, let’s say that we would need between 300 and 50,000 billionaires to address the climate crisis alone. In this case, there is a possibility that if all 2,755 of the world’s billionaires banded together, they could theoretically save the planet. Plus, the number of billionaires is growing at an exponential rate, with 493 new honorees joining the club in 2020, which only betters our chances of a sustainable future.
As another bout of hope, humans already spend about 1% of global GDP on clean energy, so we only need one or two more percentage points to throw an adequate-sized wrench into the climate crisis!
In addition to climate mitigation, though, there are a plethora of other sustainability goals that must be achieved in order to completely “save the planet.” For example, about one-third of the Earth needs to be conserved in order to nurture the one million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. The Global Deal for Nature (GDN) estimates conservation of these species will cost about $100 billion per year, about 10-20 times the amount that is currently spent. Again, there is a flicker of hope in funding this ecological deficit, considering that “in 2018 alone, the top two most profitable US companies, Apple and Berkshire Hathaway, almost matched that amount.”
Why Saving the Planet is on the Billionaires’ Bill
When it comes to actually paying for these environmental crises, why should billionaires be considered the responsible party? Why put their name on the ledger rather than the names of billions of concerted citizens around the world?
Generally speaking, grassroots approaches to activism and funding tend to be rejected by the sweeping humanitarian sector, as they receive “less than 2% of global humanitarian aid.” This makes sense logically speaking. Effectively paying for Earth-shattering problems requires large, up front, and immediate investments–which is something that really only governments and billionaires themselves can afford. Even though we previously raised many troubles related to billionaires’ philanthropy, if Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos altruistically used their $200 billion net worths for good, they could quite literally alter the fatal course of our planet.
Besides the financial accounting that can only be balanced by those with deep pockets, the uber rich tend to have the largest carbon footprints of all of us, with their highly-consumptive lifestyles producing around 175 times more greenhouse gasses than that of the world’s poorest 10%. By funneling their money into local, climate-friendly products and even (gasp) consuming far less, they could use their influential platforms and pocketbooks for good.
Additionally, rich people have political and social influence, which can create a domino effect for consumers and governments to idolize a new wave of environmentally-friendly affluence. Not to mention, most billionaires have put a lot of their investment eggs in the fossil fuel industry’s basket, so by divesting their assets they could actually have a palpable impact on the economy.
The Ledger for Planetary Salvation
Now that we’ve agreed upon who should be paying for saving the planet, let’s dig into what exactly they should be paying for. Earlier, we discussed that a massive range of projection exists regarding the costs of regenerating our Earth. A lot of this randomness boils down to scientific disagreement and natural uncertainty. The question of “what do we need to do to save our planet” precedes that of “how much does it cost.” So naturally, the disagreement on whether we should rely on green technology, ancient agricultural practices, mitigating deforestation, soil erosion or transformation of the transportation industry belies these different estimates.
Some models focus heavily on the prospects of reforestation and avoiding deforestation, as “‘natural climate solutions’ [that] can increase carbon removal to get us to 30 percent of our Paris commitment.” Many others agree that transforming the energy and transportation sectors are the most important priorities to account for, far above measly measures of land use, agricultural change, and other factors that can be ameliorated through personal behavior changes like eating less meat and dairy.
Even if we can agree upon the imperative efforts of renewable energy shift and transportation revolution, there are still a lot of other variables to consider. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to a study from the IPCC’s 2018 report, which included a 38% transition target to renewable sources of power, heat and fuel, such as sun, wind, water, geothermal and biomass by 2030 (and 59% by 2050), in addition to nature-based carbon dioxide removal. They included the repurpose of existing gas and oil pipelines for hydrogen fuel as well as “investments in high-speed rail, industrial advances, utility infrastructure, protection of our natural terrestrial and marine carbon sinks, shifts to a more sustainable agricultural system, and climate adaptation measures that will be necessary as global temperatures continue to rise.”
While it may seem impossible or daunting to achieve, there are a plethora of external benefits that could also come from these investments–primarily in the form of economic opportunities and jobs. Forking out this money now can also prevent a whole accolade of natural disasters, public health crises, and a profusion of poverty and hunger. Again, the exact cost savings are somewhat vague due to uncertainty in the effectiveness of solutions, unintended snowball effects, and inconsistencies in the “end goal” (i.e. what sustainability or regeneration look like). Strictly evaluating costs also fails to account for the disproportionation of impacts across the globe, with countries such as Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, and Pakistan being identified as hardest hit by weather-related disasters.
The Possibility of Progress
But let’s say that in a perfect world we were able to properly estimate the costs and benefits of planetary salvation. Is it even feasible to save the planet? Is this sort of generosity and collaboration even in the realm of possibility? As Times journalist Yuval Noah Harari explains,
“Of course, collecting taxes, cutting military budgets, stopping food wastage and slashing subsidies is easier said than done, especially when faced by some of the most powerful lobbies in the world. But it doesn’t require a miracle. It just requires determined organization.”
And we’ve done it before. Think about the COVID-19 pandemic where governments throughout the world spent $12 trillion to support public health and safety. Or the $6.4 trillion the United States spent on wars since 9/11. We have the capacity, we just need to band together under this common mission and source our funds most effectively to get shit done.
So let’s demand billionaires and their corporations take responsibility for the future. Let’s request that they undo the consequences of their own actions and capitalize on their own influence to make this planet a safe and equitable environment to live in. Then and only then can we fulfill the targets we’ve set out for ourselves and accelerate our journey towards a better world.