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World’s richest people now own 11% of global wealth, marking the biggest leap in recent history

December 7, 2021, 7:22 PM UTC

The world’s richest people got a whole lot richer during the COVID-19 crisis. 

In 2021, billionaires saw the steepest increase in their share of wealth on record, according to The World Inequality Lab’s annual World Inequality Report

The top 0.01% richest individuals—the 520,000 people who have at least $19 million— now hold 11% of the world’s wealth, up a full percentage point from 2020, the report found. Meanwhile, the share of global wealth owned by billionaires has grown from 1% in 1995 to 3% in 2021. 

The jump comes as governments around the world poured money into their economies to mitigate the economic pain created by pandemic shutdowns. But that money also boosted stock prices and real estate values, adding to the wealth of top-earning individuals. 

“Since wealth is a major source of future economic gains, and increasingly, of power and influence, this presages further increases in inequality,” economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, who won a 2019 Nobel prize for their research on poverty, wrote in the introduction of the report. We are living in a world with an “extreme concentration of economic power in the hands of a very small minority of the super-rich,” they said. 

At the same time, inequality has also grown, particularly in countries without strong social welfare nets. The top 1% have grabbed 38% of all additional wealth accumulated since the mid-1990s, while the bottom 50% captured just 2% of it, the report found.

Massive programs unique to the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States meant to infuse cash into the pockets of all Americans did successfully mitigate some of that inequality, the study found. 

“The COVID crisis has exacerbated inequalities between the very wealthy and the rest of the population. Yet, in rich countries, government intervention prevented a massive rise in poverty, this was not the case in poor countries. This shows the importance of social states in the fight against poverty.”, said Lucas Chancel, the report’s lead author.

Still, wealth inequality has risen in most countries since the 1980s, coinciding with a period of governmental deregulation, said the report. Today, global wealth inequality is nearly at the same level as during the peak of Western imperialism in the early 20th century, according to The World Inequality Lab, a group of the world’s top economists and social scientists focused on studying global inequality.

The report, which was, in addition to Chancel, authored by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, also found that wealth inequality had a strong correlation to carbon emissions and climate change goals. The poorest half of the population in rich countries is already at (or near) the 2030 climate targets in terms of emission rates, but that’s not the case for the top 50%. 

“Large inequalities in emissions suggest that climate policies should target wealthy polluters more,” the report concluded. “So far, climate policies such as carbon taxes have often disproportionately impacted low and middle-income groups, while leaving the consumption habits of wealthiest groups unchanged.”

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