Report says 90 companies cause 2/3 of climate change, past and present

By Deborah Jones
Published November 21, 2013

International debates about climate change, such as the United Nation talks now underway in Warsaw, have lately focused on blaming nations and which of them should pay the bills. That changed today, with new research that claims just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of emissions linked with human-caused global warming.

Researcher Richard Heede is upfront about his purpose: to change the game — and to name and shame.

His paper, Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010, was published today in the science journal Climate Change, based in the Netherlands.

 Heede lists 90 companies, most of them producers of oil, gas and coal, alongside seven cement manufacturers. Public corporations such as Chevron, Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton are on his list. So are national companies, like Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Aramco, Russia’s Gazprom and Norway’s Statoil, and industries that are directly government-owned in China, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Poland.

“Shifting the perspective from nation-states to corporate entities—both investor-owned and state-owned companies—opens new opportunities for those entities to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption,” Heede concludes. How? He suggests a blueprint for action:

  • Social pressures may be brought to bear on investor-owned entities, which could work as an additional lever to push action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
  • Regulation, litigation, and shareholder actions led to tobacco control. Heede suggests “comparable actions aimed at the private entities involved in the production of fossil fuels, particularly insofar as some of the entities included in this analysis have played a role in efforts to impede legislation that might slow the production and sale of carbon fuels.”
  • Social and legal pressures may shift current incentives to produce and market reserves and oppose efforts to leave assets in the ground.
  • Identifying  major carbon producers today and have historically “may provide a useful basis for future social and legal pressure.”

Heede, an American researcher and activist who leads the Climate Accountability Institute, and consults with companies and governments on reducing emissions, gives no quarter to deniers: “It is now broadly accepted that anthropogenic climate change presents a serious threat to the health, prosperity, and stability of human communities, and to the stability and existence of non-human species and ecosystems.”

He promises future reports, with Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes, that examine “ethical, political, and legal arguments to enlist or require these carbon majors in limiting further dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

Heede’s analysis begs a question: In a globalized world where corporations operate outside the effective jurisdiction of any state — emasculating democratic engagement — are companies the only entities that can effect change?

The paper was published on the same day controversy erupted at the contentious United Nations climate change talks in Warsaw, with activists walking out en masse.

Scores of organizations released a letter calling for a firewall between policy makers and lobbyists for oil, gas and coal producers, which they charge have “undue influence” including by corporate sponsorship.

“Is it any wonder that rich, industrialised countries are reneging on their commitments to lead on emissions cuts and provide new climate finance when whispering in their ear is an industry that profits from more emissions?” said Pascoe Sabido, a Researcher and Campaigner with Corporate Europe Observatory, in a press statement put out by 350.org. “If we want the climate talks to deliver anything like what science and equity demand, we need a firewall between dirty industry and climate policy makers.”

There was no immediate response by several named corporations to Heede’s list of 90 companies, which is making the news worldwide.

But New York Times climate change writer Andrew Revkin used his blog to question the degree to which companies should be held responsible for emissions when consumer demand drives the free market.

Revkin wrote that he welcomed the analysis “but the spin is pretty absurd. It’s kind of like saying that the hundreds of thousands of firearm murders in the history of the United States are the fault of Smith & Wesson and its ilk  Discussions of accountability have to go much farther down the chain.”

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones  

Further reading and sources: 
Climate Change 
science journal, link to Richard Heede paper
United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 
Climate Accountability Institute
Naomi Oreskes page at Harvard university
Andrew Revkin’s blog, New York Times 
350.org 
Corporate Europe, organization