A small group of protesters held a rally in Times Square in New York on July 27, calling for a higher tax rate on the wealthiest Americans, following news of billionaires’ Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson’s privately-funded trips into space. Photo: EPA-EFE
Andrew Sheng
Andrew Sheng

Climate crisis: Bezos and Branson can pay for an escape to space, but the 99 per cent can’t

  • We need a balance sheet for the whole of Earth, taking into account what every country, company or individual is doing to change our planet
  • Four major imbalances must be fixed to avert self-destruction: excessive military spending, yawning wealth gaps, and inequities in Covid-19 vaccine access and global warming impact
The planet is clearly in a mess. Two viral diseases are spreading rapidly – one is Covid-19 and the other, fake news. The likes of Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are escaping to space. Scientists can’t seem to convince everyone that we should cooperate to fix the warming planet before it self-destructs.

We don’t have a unified map of where we are and what to do. Perhaps what the world needs is a “One-Earth balance sheet”, unifying data from ecologists, economists and policymakers, to get a better picture.

Since the 1972 report, “The Limits to Growth”, ecologists have been trying to prove that modern lifestyles are unsustainable. But the economists’ position has always been: if you can’t quantify it, we can’t measure its effect and anyway, the market and technology will solve all our problems.

Balance sheets are typically reports on the financial conditions of an economic entity. As consumers and investors now care a lot more about the environmental, social and governance (ESG) aspects of corporate behaviour, companies are beginning to measure and disclose (very patchily) their responsibilities to society.

As it is, the IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards) Foundation has still not issued a unified reporting standard for ESG. Only this year has the United Nations approved its System of Environmental Economic Accounting Ecosystem Accounting, a framework for measuring the value of natural capital, so we can finally start implementing ESG reporting at the national level.

Natural capital pertains to biodiversity – our stock of natural resources – but unlike produced and human capital, it is hardly measured in national economic accounting.

We have national balance sheets, based on government, financial, corporate, household, foreign trade and financial data, but little of this actually incorporates data on natural capital. By seeing the world through national eyes, we have ended up with planetary problems far larger than any single country can solve.

Conceptually, a One-Earth balance sheet would help identify what every country, company or individual is doing to change our planet and humanity’s total conditions, for better or worse.

What might such a planetary balance sheet look like for the present moment? From the One-Earth perspective, there seem to be at least four obscene imbalances.

Without China, there is no solving the climate crisis

The first is vaccine injustice. As of May 24, the head of the World Health Organization said more than 75 per cent of all vaccines had been administered in just 10 countries, while in many low-income countries, there were enough doses for barely 1 per cent of the population.

According to an article in The BMJ (British Medical Journal), the United States, Britain and the Netherlands are throwing away tens of thousands of vaccine doses that are due to expire, even as the developing world is starved of vaccines.


Health workers trek to remote areas to bring Covid-19 vaccines to Indian-administered Kashmir

Health workers trek to remote areas to bring Covid-19 vaccines to Indian-administered Kashmir

The second is a sharp increase in military spending, against a backdrop of economic devastation. In 2020, global military expenditure was US$2 trillion, with the US accounting for 39 per cent of the total. Global military spending rose 2.6 per cent from the year before, even as the world’s gross domestic product fell 4.9 per cent.

Notably, the International Monetary Fund estimated that a vaccination strategy for the developing world would cost only US$50 billion, a fraction of US$2 trillion.

Thirdly, the rich are getting richer. Globally, the population of high net worth individuals increased by 6.3 per cent to 20.8 million in 2020, and their wealth grew by 7.6 per cent to US$79.6 trillion, according to the Capgemini World Wealth Report.

But in the same year, the World Bank estimated that between 88 million and 115 million people would fall into extreme poverty, and that the number could grow to 150 million by this year.

The rich world’s vaccine nationalism will cost everyone in the end

Fourthly, the world is abound with climate disasters: deadly flash floods in Europe, China and India, forest fires in California, melting permafrost. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 showed the poor to be the hardest hit by more powerful storms.

Yet, who contributed most to the current state of affairs? Only a handful of countries and companies, actually. According to the Carbon Majors Database, just 100 companies have been linked to 71 per cent of industrial carbon emissions since 1988.

Meanwhile, the US has emitted more carbon dioxide than any other country, with 25 per cent of historical emissions since 1751. That is about twice the 12.7 per cent for China, the world’s second largest national emitter, while the European Union has emitted 22 per cent. (Amazingly, the worst emissions offender also appears to be the most sanctimonious about climate action.)

In response to all the crimes against Mother Nature, international lawyers have developed a concept of “ecocide”, which is defined as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts”.

If the International Criminal Court does adopt this definition, ecocide may soon be an international crime like genocide.

What next then? Perhaps lawyers could also define “infocide”, to target those who cause damage to others via misinformation or fake news.

The world is in a state of chaotic imbalance because there are no limits to military spending, wealth creation and other destructive injustices. The only defence against mutually assured destruction is a moral defence. As for those who feel no moral obligation to humanity and nature, please buy a ticket to space too.

Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective