In the years since the world first started considering climate change as a major existential threat, it’s tended to focus on what governments can do about the problem. Through big meetings in Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris, governments have negotiated what they can do to quell greenhouse gas emissions and their impact on the environment. Arguably, however, companies have had more impact than officialdom; it’s the decisions taken in boardrooms, and by investors, that matter more to whether we burn fossil fossils, or not.
This point is brought home by a new report that puts the responsibility for climate change squarely with the corporate sector. It finds that, when you discount emissions from agriculture and the built environment, 100 oil, gas and coal companies account for 71% of manmade greenhouse gases put into the atmosphere in the last 30 years. Just 25 companies are responsible for more than half of industrial emissions since 1988, the year the United Nations set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to study the impact of global warming.
The numbers include direct emissions from corporate operations as well as indirect emissions, such as when someone drives from Detroit to Ann Arbor (unlucky for them, corporates get lumbered with their customers’ emissions). The report, published by the CDP, formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project, is based on data from the Climate Accountability Institute, a research group based in Colorado.
Pedro Faria, CDP’s technical director, says the aim is to reframe the climate debate away from the policies of the Trump or other administration towards companies and the stakeholders that influence them.
The report “offers insight into responsibility from the perspective of the producers of hydrocarbons–those companies that have made astonishing returns over decades through the extraction and production of greenhouse gas emitting products,” he says in an introduction. “Climate action is no longer confined to the direction given by policymakers; it is now a social movement, commanded by both economic and ethical imperatives and supported by growing amounts of data.”
Historically-speaking, emissions in the years since 1988 have been unprecedented. Fossil fuel companies released more emissions in the last 28 years than in the 237 years before that (going back to the Industrial Revolution). More than half the companies studied are state-owned, 9% are private, while 32% are owned by investors. This last group includes ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, Total, and BHP Billiton, the Australian mining group, while the top state companies include Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and National Iranian Oil.
If these companies produce emissions at the same rate over the next 28 years as over the last 28 years, global average temperatures are likely to rise 4 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels–that is, double what scientists say is a safe limit for global warming. The report calls on oil, gas and coal companies to reduce operational emissions, shift to lighter fuels, invest in carbon capture technology, and diversify into renewables. “They owe it to the millions of clients they serve that are already feeling the effects of climate change, and to the many millions more that require energy for the comfort of their daily lives but are looking for alternatives to their products,” Faria says.