The climate crisis we are facing right now (which for one reason or another many people choose to ignore) has largely been caused by only 90 companies – which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the industrial revolution, new research suggests. The study was found that almost all these companies worked in oil, gas or coal.

Climate change and private companies

Oil field owned by BP. Image via The Guardian.

This was the most ambitious effort to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.

“There are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world,” climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado said. “But the decision makers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.”

To make the entire situation even more worrying, the study also concludes that half of all emissions were produced just in the last 25 years, well past the date when governments and corporations became aware that greenhouse emissions were directly correlated with global warming, and should have started doing something to prevent the situation we’re in today. So if anything, we’re emitting more and more in recent years.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that if things continue to move in this direction, the world stands within 30 years of exhausting its “carbon budget” – the amount of CO2 we can emit without warming the planet with 2 degrees Celsius. But what this study really does is show that the burden of fighting against this dramatic situation shouldn’t fall on governments alone – a big part of the blame is carried by privately held companies, so therefore, they should also start doing something, before it gets totally out of hand.

“This study is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the climate crisis. The public and private sectors alike must do what is necessary to stop global warming,” former vice-president explained. “Those who are historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere have a clear obligation to be part of the solution.”

90 companies to rule them all

bp chevron exxon

Image credits.

It’s quite surprising that out of the myriad of companies in the world that existed since the industrial revolution, 90 of them are responsible for 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial carbon dioxide (914 gigatonne CO2) and methane between 1751 to 2010 – that’s an incredibly small number, that shows the huge scale that these companies are working at. Out of the 90, 83 were energy companies producing oil, gas and coal. The remaining seven were cement manufacturers – another industry that’s a major contributor to greenhouse emissions.

What’s interesting is that only 31 of the companies that made the list were state-owned companies such as Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil. Another 9 were government run industries – coal producing companies from China, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Poland.

Cement producing facility. Image via NY Times.

But 50 companies, more than half, are private, investor owned. Names that may strike you as familiar, such as Chevron, Exxon, BP , and Royal Dutch Shell, British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton unsurprisingly pop up on the list.

ChevronTexaco was the leading private held greenhouse emitter, causing 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions to date, with Exxon not far behind at 3.2% and BP at 2.5%. In between them, the 3 companies almost add up to 10% of all the greenhouse gases ever produced on Earth.

Furthermore, this research showed that we shouldn’t only blame it on the rich countries.

“It seemed like maybe this could break the logjam,” said Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard. “There are all kinds of countries that have produced a tremendous amount of historical emissions that we do not normally talk about. We do not normally talk about Mexico or Poland or Venezuela. So then it’s not just rich v poor, it is also producers v consumers, and resource rich v resource poor.”

Accountability? What accountability?

As bad as the general situation is, there are still many things that can be done – but everything has to start with companies becoming accountable (in a serious way) for their greenhouse emissions.

“What I think could be a game changer here is the potential for clearly fingerprinting the sources of those future emissions,” said Michael Mann, a contributor to the study. “It increases the accountability for fossil fuel burning. You can’t burn fossil fuels without the rest of the world knowing about it.”

Here’s an awesome, interactive pie chart from the Guardian depicting the findings from the study.

The research was published in the journal Climatic Change.

Scientific Reference: Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010. Richard Heede

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