The 20 firms be­hind a third of all global car­bon emis­sions

New data shows how fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies have driven cli­mate cri­sis de­spite know­ing dan­gers

The Guardian - - Front Page - Matthew Taylor and Jon­athan Watts

The Guardian to­day re­veals the 20 fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies whose re­lent­less ex­ploita­tion of the world’s oil, gas and coal re­serves can be di­rectly linked to more than onethird of all green­house gas emis­sions in the mod­ern era.

Data from world-renowned re­searchers re­veals how this co­hort of state-owned and multi­na­tional firms are driv­ing the cli­mate emer­gency that threat­ens hu­man­ity, and de­tails how they have ex­panded op­er­a­tions de­spite be­ing aware of the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact on the planet.

The analysis, by Richard Heede at the Cli­mate Ac­count­abil­ity In­sti­tute in the US, the world’s lead­ing author­ity on big oil’s role in the es­ca­lat­ing cli­mate emer­gency, eval­u­ates what the global cor­po­ra­tions have ex­tracted from the ground and the sub­se­quent emis­sions these fos­sil fu­els are re­spon­si­ble for since 1965 – the point at which ex­perts say the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of fos­sil fu­els was known by in­dus­try lead­ers and politi­cians.

The top 20 com­pa­nies on the list have con­trib­uted to 35% of all en­ergy-re­lated car­bon diox­ide and meth­ane world­wide, to­talling 480bn tonnes of car­bon diox­ide equiv­a­lent (GtCO2e) since 1965.

Those iden­ti­fied range from in­vestor-owned firms – house­hold names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell – to state-owned com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Saudi Aramco and Gazprom. Chevron topped the list of the eight in­vestorowne­d cor­po­ra­tions, fol­lowed closely by Exxon, BP and Shell. To­gether these four global busi­nesses are be­hind more than 10% of the world’s car­bon emis­sions since 1965.

Twelve of the top 20 com­pa­nies are state-owned and to­gether their ex­trac­tions are re­spon­si­ble for 20% of to­tal emis­sions in the same pe­riod. The lead­ing state-owned pol­luter is Saudi Aramco, which has pro­duced 4.38% of the global to­tal on its own.

Michael Mann, one of the world’s lead­ing cli­mate sci­en­tists, said the find­ings shone a light on the role of fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies and called on politi­cians at the forth­com­ing cli­mate talks in Chile in De­cem­ber to take ur­gent mea­sures to rein in ac­tiv­i­ties.

“The great tragedy of the cli­mate cri­sis is that seven and a half bil­lion peo­ple must pay the price – in the form of a de­graded planet – so that a cou­ple of dozen pol­lut­ing in­ter­ests can con­tinue to make record prof­its.

“It is a great moral fail­ing of our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that we have al­lowed this to hap­pen.” The global pol­luters list uses com­pany-re­ported an­nual pro­duc­tion of oil, nat­u­ral gas, and coal and then cal­cu­lates how much of the car­bon and meth­ane in the pro­duced fu­els is emit­ted to the at­mos­phere through­out the sup­ply chain, from ex­trac­tion to end use. It found that 90% of the emis­sions at­trib­uted to the top 20 cli­mate cul­prits was from use of their prod­ucts, such as petrol, jet fuel, nat­u­ral gas and ther­mal coal. One-tenth came from ex­tract­ing, re­fin­ing, and de­liv­er­ing the fin­ished fu­els.

The Guardian ap­proached the 20 com­pa­nies named in the pol­luters list. Seven of them replied. Some ar­gued that they were not di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for how the oil, gas or coal they ex­tracted were used by con­sumers. Sev­eral dis­puted claims that the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of fos­sil fu­els was known as far back as the late 1950s or that the in­dus­try col­lec­tively had worked to de­lay ac­tion.

Most ex­plic­itly said cli­mate change was a se­ri­ous is­sue and ac­cepted the sci­ence. Some claimed to back the tar­gets in the Paris deal to cut emis­sions and keep global tem­per­a­ture rises to 1.5C above pre-in­dus­trial lev­els. Some said it would take ef­forts by busi­ness, govern­ments and con­sumers to make mean­ing­ful ac­tion.

All pointed out ef­forts they were mak­ing to in­vest in re­new­able or low car­bon en­ergy sources and said fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies had an im­por­tant role to play in ad­dress­ing the cli­mate cri­sis.

PetroChina said it was a sep­a­rate com­pany from its pre­de­ces­sor, China Na­tional Petroleum, so had no in­flu­ence over, or re­spon­si­bil­ity for, its his­tor­i­cal emis­sions. The com­pa­nies’ replies can be read in full on­line.

The lat­est study builds on pre­vi­ous work by Heede and his team that has looked at the his­tor­i­cal role of fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies in the cli­mate cri­sis. The im­pact of emis­sions from coal, oil and gas pro­duced by fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies has been huge. Ac­cord­ing to re­search pub­lished in 2017 by Peter Frumhoff at the Union of Con­cerned Sci­en­tists in the US and col­leagues, CO2 and meth­ane emis­sions from the 90 big­gest in­dus­trial car­bon pro­duc­ers were re­spon­si­ble for al­most half the rise in global tem­per­a­ture and close to a third of the sea level rise be­tween 1880 and 2010. The sci­en­tists said such work fur­thered the “con­sid­er­a­tion of [com­pa­nies’] his­tor­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for cli­mate change”.

Heede said: “These com­pa­nies and their prod­ucts are sub­stan­tially re­spon­si­ble for the cli­mate emer­gency, have col­lec­tively de­layed na­tional and global ac­tion for decades, and can no longer hide be­hind the smoke­screen that con­sumers are the re­spon­si­ble par­ties. Oil, gas, and coal ex­ec­u­tives de­rail progress and of­fer plat­i­tudes when their vast cap­i­tal, tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise, and moral obli­ga­tion should en­able rather than thwart the shift to a low-car­bon fu­ture.”

Heede said 1965 was the start point for this data be­cause re­cent re­search

The Guardian

had re­vealed that by then the im­pact of fos­sil fu­els was known by in­dus­try lead­ers and politi­cians.

The re­search aims to hold to ac­count those com­pa­nies most re­spon­si­ble for car­bon emis­sions and shift de­bate away from a fo­cus just on in­di­vid­ual re­spon­si­bil­ity. It follows a 2018 warn­ing from the UN that there were just 12 years to avoid the worst con­se­quences of run­away global heat­ing and re­strict tem­per­a­ture rises to 1.5C above prein­dus­trial lev­els.

The study shows many of the worst of­fend­ers are big, in­vestor-owned firms that spend bil­lions on lob­by­ing and por­tray­ing them­selves as en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble. A study found that the largest five listed oil and gas com­pa­nies spend nearly $200m a year lob­by­ing to de­lay, control or block poli­cies to tackle cli­mate change.

Heede said the com­pa­nies had a “sig­nif­i­cant moral, fi­nan­cial, and le­gal re­spon­si­bil­ity for the cli­mate cri­sis, and a com­men­su­rate bur­den to help ad­dress the prob­lem”.

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