Updated Study Finds Sixty-five Percent of Industrial Carbon Pollution Produced by 90 Entities

New research focuses attention on fossil fuel companies' responsbilities for climate change

Published Dec 8, 2014

LIMA, Peru (December 08, 2014) – Sixty-five percent of all heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuels and cement can be traced to just 90 entities, according to the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), which has updated a first-of-its-kind database that accounts for historic emissions from major carbon producers in the oil, natural gas, coal, and cement industries. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), these data are essential to holding carbon producers accountable for their contributions to climate change.

The dataset traces emissions to 90 entities that generated more than eight megatons of carbon emissions per year, which is the equivalent of the annual greenhouse gas emissions from 1,684,211 passenger vehicles, or more than all the registered vehicles in Iowa. The data groups the entities into three categories, investor-owned, state-owned and government-run.

  • Investor-owned companies such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell have extracted fuels that, when burned, created 21.6 percent, or 338 gigatons of carbon-dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e), of global emissions of carbon dioxide and methane released from industrial activities since 1751.
  • State-owned companies such as Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, and Coal India have grown more in recent years and 20.1 percent of all emissions, or 315 GtCO2e, can be traced to these companies.
  • Finally, a handful of government-run industries in China and the former Soviet Union, among others, produced fuels that comprise 23.1 percent of emissions (362 GtCO2e).

“The delegates at the climate conference are dealing with emissions country-by-country,” said Richard Heede, the principal researcher who runs CAI. “Looking at emission through the lens of the relatively few companies that are actually producing the fuels paints a different, and complementary picture.”

The data shows that nearly one-third of all global industrial carbon dioxide from 1751 – 2013 are attributed to the carbon fuels produced by the 20 largest investor and state-owned companies.

Heede also pointed out that the top investor-owned companies in his dataset have extracted far more carbon from the Earth than nearly any country. Chevron remains the top historical carbon producer and 3.34 percent of all industrial emissions can be traced to the company. Five of the top ten “Carbon Majors” are investor-owned companies, which also include ExxonMobil (3.10 percent), BP (2.38 percent), Royal Dutch Shell (2.06 percent) and ConocoPhillips (1.12 percent). Heede initially published his peer-reviewed dataset, which covered the years 1854 to 2010 in Climatic Change last year. The updated data includes fuel and cement production and emissions through 2013.

Peter Frumhoff, UCS’s director of science and policy, which sponsors Heede’s research, said the numbers should help focus attention on the responsibilities of major carbon producers to contribute productively to climate solutions.

“Just as the major emitting nations have large responsibilities to act on climate,” Frumhoff said, “we should also be looking into ways for the major carbon producers to be held accountable for the risks their products create and the damage they’ve already caused.”

Frumhoff added that many major fossil fuel producers deliberately spread misinformation about climate science and stalled climate legislation.

“Major fossil fuel companies and their trade associations have aggressively sought to cast doubt on the science and prevent sensible policies, just as tobacco companies and asbestos manufacturers did when scientists found evidence that their products were causing serious harm,” he explained. “The fact that these products were legal did not absolve corporations of their responsibility to protect citizens from their adverse effects.”

UCS and collaborating researchers are using a citizen science platform to run climate models using Heede’s data. Their research could help determine the degree to which specific impacts of climate change can be attributed to emissions traced to major carbon producers. Scientific research of this kind could help inform public, policy and legal assessments of the responsibilities of fossil fuel companies for climate damages.

Angela Anderson, Director of UCS Climate and Energy Program sees connections to the negotiations in Lima over emissions limits and adaptation.

“Even if emissions plummeted today, climate change impacts will continue to mount. The emissions commitments countries will pledge in Paris require policy changes at home. Reducing the influence of politically powerful carbon producers will help countries pass the laws that are needed,” said Anderson. “It is high time that these companies stop deceiving the public, stop polluting and take responsibility for the damages.”