Verify Installation
top of page

How a Researcher is Waging War on the “Polluter Elite”

By Sarah Zeines

Thursday, October 21, 2021



This post is an on-site edited version of The Geneva Observer's SUSTAINED - The SDGs Decoded bimonthly newsletter, October 20 2021 edition. To receive SUSTAINED directly in your inbox, register here.


How can one justify billionaire extravagance in the climate crisis era? Super yachts, private jets, space travel and other carbon-intensive goods used by the 1%, should, if not outright banned, be heavily taxed to help meet global climate change targets—so says a newly published document from the Hot & Cool Institute think-tank. The report, co-authored by researchers from Oxford and Lausanne Universities, is particularly harsh towards what its writers call the “polluter elite”: the ultra-rich who persist in being oblivious to the damage done to the environment by their lifestyle. More broadly, a few weeks short of the opening of the Glasgow COP 26 Conference, the report identifies four “problematic lifestyles”: “Eating meat, using fossil fuel cars, flying, and large and high-energy-consuming houses.”

For Yamina Saheb, one of the report’s co-authors and former Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) employee turned whistle-blower, the discussion about climate change starts with sufficiency: “A set of policy measures and daily practices which avoid the demand for energy, materials, land, water, and other natural resources, while delivering wellbeing for all within planetary boundaries.” As she told SUSTAINED, she developed the concept by drawing on her academic research as well as her own experience.

When it comes to unnecessary travel, International Geneva is at the centre of the discussion: it is likely that between the development of virtual gatherings, the liquidity crisis, and the desire to reduce its carbon footprint, the city will no longer see the same level of visitors at international conferences—about 200,000 a year—it was used to before the pandemic.

SUSTAINED: Who are the “polluter elite”?

Yamina Saheb: The people who over-consume. I put myself in this category, professionally speaking. For instance, I calculated that if everyone was doing the amount of travelling I was doing for work purposes, as a member of the science elite, back in 2019, we would need 15 planets. However, based on my practices in my private life, less than one planet would be needed. When you think about it, it’s an immense contradiction to have climate-oriented scientists polluting drastically in order to attend events on climate change mitigation. Of course, it’s not nearly as bad as owning a jet or a yacht. My private carbon footprint consoles me.

There is growing evidence that lifestyles of the elite are playing a huge part in the climate breakdown. There is also emerging literature on the over-consumption of this category. All the references are included in the report.

What are some of the solutions the joint report envisions?

Sharing space—building exclusively multi-family buildings or eco-villages, as opposed to single family homes. This is a key proposal, and goes beyond living in an apartment. Construction projects need to contain shared spaces that enable human interaction and optimize use of square meters. For example, who really needs a guest room all the time? Buildings could have shared guest spaces. Not to mention courtyards, where neighbours can meet. Sufficiency involves a multitude of human factors, not just technical ones.

Of course, there is also prioritising cycling lines over highways and public transport, as well as ride-sharing over individual cars. Plus, local and responsible food consumption.

Idealistically, I believe that all forms of advertising should be banned. I grew up in Algiers, a place where marketing did not exist when I was a kid. If I really need to buy something, do I need a commercial to encourage me to do so? Of course not. I can decide what my needs are by myself. Advertising is not about satisfying our basic needs. It’s about triggering wants, which are not needed for our happiness.

In practice, how can the polluter elite be targeted and forced into making these changes?

The concept of sufficiency imposes an upper and lower cap. The upper cap is set by the planetary boundaries and the lower cap is set by providing decent living standard for all. To achieve this, we need to highly tax over-consumption, and also ban any kind of offsetting, which gives the polluter elite the right to continue to pollute. This is no longer possible given the remaining carbon budget.

So, what are the next steps?

The IPCC report expected next spring is of course the most influential one. The problem is that we are in an urgent situation, yet policies tend to take 5 to 10 years to enforce.

Journalists have an important role to play in accelerating the process. The role of scientists is to provide scientific evidence. The media’s role is in bridging the communication gap, ensuring policymakers and citizens fully understand the main findings of the IPCC reports and take action swiftly. SDG success is about joining forces between science-based evidence, media, and policy.

bottom of page