How do the rich stay green?

Ashley Milne-Tyte Apr 16, 2010

How do the rich stay green?

Ashley Milne-Tyte Apr 16, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Next week marks 40 years since the first Earth Day. I’m guessing they didn’t talk nearly as much about the environment then as we do now. It’s not easy being green. But it’s a lot easier when you’ve got piles of greenbacks.

Spendy solar panels? Check. Hybrid car? Check. Large check to the Sierra Club? Check. And why not? A recent Princeton University study reported that the world’s wealthiest people cause half of the world’s carbon emissions.

Ashley Milne-Tyte looks at some of the ways the well-off are trying to make up for that.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Actually, the rich are trying to do something about global warming without necessarily changing how they live. Instead, some are buying their way out.

Jeff Stewart has two homes — one in Manhattan, one in the Hamptons — so he uses plenty of heat and electricity. He flies all over the world. And he can’t see living any other way, but he knows it’s bad for the environment.

Last year, he started a company with a partner called The Belgrave Trust. It invites people to neutralize their carbon emissions with a few clicks of a mouse.

Jeff Stewart: You simply identify what is your occupation or lifestyle. Are you a financier, a diplomat, physician, scientist…

Say you’re a scientist.

Stewart: Statistically, we look at what’s the typical home arrangement, car arrangement, travel level and leisure activities for a scientist. In this case, we’ve assumed zero hours of private jet travel, three short flights…

The Web site calculates how many tons of carbon that scientist generates in a year. Then, it charges the scientist what it would cost to buy those tons, plus a service fee. The client’s money gets invested in projects around the world that essentially erase, or offset, pollution from carbon. But recent reports question whether these projects do what they claim.

Still, Stewart says it’s an affordable first step for the guilt-ridden to write off the damage they do.

Stewart: My footprint is less than a $100 a month. And, y’know I calculated it out, I spend less per day on living carbon neutral than I do on coffee.

Some critics say curbing your impact on the atmosphere should require some real self-sacrifice.

Technology entrepreneur David Kidder is trying a bit of everything. He’s 36 and made his first fortune during the dot-com boom. He and his family live in a New York City suburb in an elegant, 4,500-square foot Victorian farmhouse.

David Kidder: So if I show you the before/after pictures, the house was such a disaster. So this is a little pocket room, this is my wife’s office here. She’s a former bank executive. Now she’s building a non-profit with Oprah, so she’s very busy doing that.

This power couple has two little boys, a nanny, two dogs and two cars. Everyone’s out right now. and the five-bedroom house is programmed to cut energy use during these hours. Kidder shows me a wall panel with graphics of light bulbs and radiators.

Kidder: I have the house kind of choreographed, so you can actually turn lights up and down, as well as control heating. And so you’re kind of optimizing your energy, so to speak, throughout the day.

Kidder admits he’s far from perfect. His wife now eats mainly vegetarian, but he remains an unrepentant carnivore. He still flies a lot.

At least he’s trying. In Hollywood, people need more of a push.

Sean Knibb is a landscape designer in L.A. He focuses on re-designing lawns, so they use less of one of L.A.’s scarcest resources, water.

Sean Knibb: We’ve had a client that’s asked us to abide by water restrictions in the front of the property that was visible to their neighbors.

So they were seen to be doing the right thing — but at the back of the house, the word was to water a lot to keep everything looking fabulous. Knibb says clients are gradually coming ’round to the idea that less lawn is good, but they’re not driven by concern for the environment.

Knibb: If you want to get someone to change their consumption or their usage, let’s say of water, or re-think landscape design, you have to approach it from a financial perspective.

In other words, even multi-millionaires like to save money. Knibb says after he re-designed one Bel Air couple’s lawn, their water bill dropped by nearly half. They were delighted, and they now wear the warm glow of the eco-conscious — at least while they’re in their yard. They still get around by private jet.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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