How do the carbon footprints of the Australian Financial Review’s Rich Listers compare to the rest of us?

Take their jetsetting lifestyles for a start. A couple years ago Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, mining magnate and number two on the list, bought a $98 million private jet. With a little digging, you can find out the model, tail number and even where it’s been. 

In just the first five months of this year, Forrest’s Bombardier Global Express 7500 (one of the largest private jets on the market) has made 59 flights. According to one tool that allows the “climate-conscious” super-rich to compare the emissions of different private jet models, Forrest’s emissions from these trips amount to more than 700 tonnes of CO2. Compare that to what the average person emits in a year: 4.7 tonnes. Twiggy’s jet fuel-guzzling commutes put him in the top echelon of the 1 percent, who are collectively responsible for 50 percent of aviation emissions.

These personal emissions, however, are but a drop in an ocean of oil. In a report published last year, Carbon Billionaires: The investment emissions of the world’s richest people, Oxfam found that, once capital investments and company operations are included, the emissions of the richest billionaires are 1 million times higher than an average person’s. 

The luxury consumption of billionaires is the smallest part of their contribution to global warming. Yet carbon footprints usually record emissions created only through personal consumption. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the very concept of a “carbon footprint” was the invention of an advertising firm working for oil giant BP, which attempted to shift the blame for pollution from big companies to ordinary people.

By conceiving of the population as a collection of emission-producing individuals, it seems as though we all need to “do our part” to cut emissions. Some may have to do more than others, sure, but we all need to act individually to get as close to zero emissions as possible, whether that’s by installing solar panels on our homes, buying more expensive fuel-efficient or electric cars, ditching the car altogether for a bicycle or giving up air travel. 

This “carbon footprint” view of the world obscures important questions: Who is it that chooses what products are available? Who decides how they are produced? Who controls the energy and transport infrastructure? The Rich List is not just an inventory of Australia’s biggest consumers; it is a list of the people who control the economy.

What difference do a couple of rooftop solar panels make if Gina Rinehart, number one on the Rich List, decides to open another coal mine? What difference does riding a bike make when Lindsay Fox, number 23, puts another fleet of Linfox trucks on the road and stymies attempts to increase rail freight? 

The Rich List is also the climate’s most wanted list: the magnates who make billions mining coal, the retailers who wrap all our goods in plastic, the media moguls who help them get away with it.

Clipping their wings would be a good start, but a walking capitalist is just as dangerous as a flying one: their carbon footprints are so colossal that a single step can blacken the globe.