Beyond Borders and Billionaires at COP28: Rethinking Elite Accountability for Climate Justice

At least of 25% of the billionaires who participated as representatives at COP28 have amassed their wealth through sectors like petrochemicals, mining, and beef production.

At least of 25% of the billionaires who participated as representatives at COP28 have amassed their wealth through sectors like petrochemicals, mining, and beef production. The collective net worth of the 34 billionaires that were present totaled approximately $495.5 billion.

Introduction

The global community is currently facing twin conundrums of the escalating climate crisis and the widening wealth inequality. Strikingly, it is the richest individuals, corporations, and nations who contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions, thereby endangering our planet. Meanwhile, it is those already experiencing hardship—such as the impoverished, marginalized communities, and countries in the Global South—who bear the brunt of these adverse effects. Furthermore, among these vulnerable groups, women, girls, Indigenous Peoples, and others facing discrimination suffer disproportionately. Though the consequences of climate change affect people worldwide, it is only the wealthiest who possess the resources, power, and means to shield themselves from its fallout. Such an advantage brings with it immense responsibility. Notably, the adverse effects become even more pronounced when economic inequality intersects with other forms of disadvantages, such as gender, ethnicity, and age. Consequently, an incredibly unjust reality takes shape: wealthy individuals and affluent nations are essentially steering the climate crisis, while those grappling with poverty, marginalization, and low-income circumstances are bearing the heaviest burdens.

Global Billionaire wealth at COP28

Approximately one-fourth of the billionaires who had registered as delegates for COP28 have garnered their immense wealth from industries like petrochemicals, mining, and beef production. When combining the net worth of all 34 billionaires in attendance, an astounding sum of around $495.5 billion is reached.

The attendance of multiple billionaires at COP28, coupled with their utilization of private jets, raises valid concerns about the perception of the summit as an event catering to the world’s ultra-rich. Such a gathering may create avenues for these individuals to exert influence over government leaders, politicians, and business associates, potentially shaping climate policy decisions. Moreover, instances where billionaire delegates have business connections with the host nations, as seen in the collaboration between Egyptian investor Nassef Sawiris and the UAE’s Adnoc for “blue ammonia” exploration, bring attention to potential conflicts of interest and underscore the importance of transparency in such partnerships.

Wealth and Climate action at crossroads

Oxfam’s insightful investigation has unveiled a distressing truth: a noteworthy percentage of the billionaire delegates present at the UN climate summit, known as COP28, have built their fortunes upon industries notorious for their high levels of pollution. On the official COP28 website, Andrey Melnichenko’s foundation is categorized as a “climate supporter” despite reports indicating that his companies have invested around $23 billion into coal and fertilizer production over the last 15 years. Interestingly, four of the billionaires attending the summit were granted party badges, granting them access to the negotiations in the blue zone. Additionally, another 11 billionaires held host country badges as they were invited by the United Arab Emirates. These include renowned figures such as Aliko Dangote, a prominent cement and oil tycoon from Nigeria, Mukesh Ambani, the head of an Indian oil and gas conglomerate who serves on the Cop28 presidency’s international advisory panel, and the esteemed Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft in the US, whose nuclear company recently forged a deal with the UAE.

Carbon Inequality

To witness the iniquitous carbon divide at play, delegates at COP28 only need to step out of the confines of the Conference center in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) presents a stark illustration of extreme wealth disparity, largely stemming from the accumulation of riches by its rulers through oil and gas extraction in the desert. This and the appalling conditions endured by the migrant workforce, which constitutes a staggering 80% of the population, have contributed significantly to this inequality. Its ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, stands as the scion of what some deem the wealthiest dynasty on the planet. Their wealth, reportedly surpassing $300 billion, primarily hails from owning 6% of the world’s oil reserves. Consequently, the family’s investments have resulted in a striking climate footprint.

 In sharp contrast, on one end of the equation resides the vulnerable migrant labor force bearing the brunt of climate ramifications. Hailing mostly from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and North Africa, these individuals toil on construction sites, in restaurants, and as office cleaners, earning meager monthly incomes ranging from $300 to $750—a trifling amount that barely covers their rent. Their carbon consumption remains negligible, with their primary concern being dangerously high climate exposure. Countless labor outdoors in temperatures that routinely surpass 40°C (104°F), leading to an unsettling proportion of heatstroke cases.

Polluter Elite

Climate anxiety manifests differently based on one’s income group. For individuals in lower income groups, it brings about fear of the intensifying threats of heatwaves and floods. Conversely, for those in the upper echelons of wealth, it entails concerns about the emerging desperation and social unrest driven by climate-related challenges. Billionaires often inhabit protected environments shielded at considerable financial and environmental costs. It is increasingly evident that the climate crisis exacerbates inequality, just as inequality concomitantly worsens the climate crisis. Researchers deduce that every million metric tonnes of carbon emissions result in 226 additional deaths globally. Applying this “mortality cost” formula, Oxfam notes that the emissions from the richest 1% alone in a single year could potentially lead to 1.3 million deaths over the next several decades as a consequence of excessive heat and other climate-related impacts.

The individuals who wield decision-making power at COP28—an array of high-ranking politicians such as US senators, British ministers, and European commissioners—tend to fall within the top 1% of income earners. Interestingly, corporate CEOs, accompanied by their flock of influential lobbyists who frequently swarm to COP summits, often showcase even greater wealth and possess more substantial investments in carbon-intensive assets. Within boardrooms, a combination of share options and bonus structures has created an unfortunate incentive for executives in the oil industry to staunchly oppose climate action initiatives.

According to analysis by Influence Maps, a significant portion of companies owned by billionaires attending COP28 do not actively support the targets set forth in the Paris Agreement. Their findings highlight that only a limited few of these companies align their climate policies with the Paris Agreement’s objectives.

Way Forward

The wealthiest 1% of the global population is responsible for more carbon emissions than the combined emissions of the poorest 66%. This alarming disparity not only amplifies the hardships faced by vulnerable communities, but also undermines the global push to combat the climate emergency. While the solution to this predicament may appear multifaceted, it can be summarized in a straightforward manner. Many experts and advocates believe that the power to address the climate crisis lies in the hands of politicians who must immediately regain control by enacting strong legislation and policies. Oxfam specifically calls for a wealth tax and a windfall tax on corporations based on the “polluter pays” principle, thus placing a greater burden on those who are both most accountable for and financially capable of addressing the crises.

Encouragingly, progressive thinkers suggest that an essential component of the solution entails fostering a class-conscious political discourse that recognizes the significant role played by the affluent and the capitalist system as major catalysts of the climate crisis.

The participation of billionaires with connections to polluting industries in COP28 sheds light on the intricate dynamics between wealth, business interests, and climate negotiations. As the global community grapples with the pressing issues brought forth by climate change, it becomes paramount to closely examine the involvement of influential individuals and prioritize environmental well-being over immediate business gains when formulating climate policies. By doing so, we can strive to create a sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Rameen Siddiqui
Rameen Siddiqui
I am a young leader and activist and my main focus areas are Sustainable Development, Political Economy and Advocacy. Also a Youth Member of United Nations Association of Pakistan (UNAP), Currently pursuing BS Economics and Finance from Greenwich University.