Ninety companies, including BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil, have been blamed for causing the climate change crisis in a new study carried out by the US-based Climate Accountability Institute.
The study, published in journal Climatic Change, says these companies – 50 of which are investor-owned energy companies – are responsible for almost two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
It supports these claims with calculations that suggest this group is responsible for the equivalent of 914 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide – 63% of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010.
While the study is perhaps shocking at first due to its fine pinpointing of responsibility to certain companies, the results aren’t really all that surprising – it’s well known that fossil fuel companies, which meet the majority of the world’s energy needs, are involved in massive, energy intensive operations that cost billions and last many years.
Role of consumers and decision makers
What isn’t highlighted in the report is the climate change chain, so to speak. Fossil fuel companies – whether investor or state-owned – work on a supply demand principle, so the responsibility should really be shared between consumers and governments.
The fact that half of the greenhouse gases analysed were said to be produced in the past 25 years shows that although governments and decision makers have known about climate change for decades, they have failed to reduce fossil fuel consumption and demand, something that is perhaps unsurprising considering the growth rate of the global population, which is exacerbated by the slow uptake of other forms of clean energy.
The companies mentioned in the report include 31 state-owned ones and some nation-states themselves.
In fact, according to the report’s calculations, as laid out in The Guardian, government-run companies have been some of the biggest offenders.
For example, oil and coal companies in the former Soviet Union produced more greenhouse gas emissions than any other entity – just fewer than 8.9% of the total produced over that time.
China is listed second with its government-run entities accounting for 8.6% of total global emissions.
For investor owned companies, ChevronTexaco was the leading emitter among investor-owned companies, causing 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions to date.
Some fossil fuel companies and organisations were contacted for comment, including BP, which delclined, and the American Petroleum Institute, which failed to respond to a request.
However, Royal Dutch Shell offered this comment: "Energy is vital to our daily life and the oxygen of the global economy. We need to see far more realism in terms of how the world responds to the CO2 challenge, while noting that supporting the growth of new (renewable) sources of energy is not the same as implementing CO2 mitigation measures.
"Actions to tackle climate change must be reconciled with population growth, economic growth and an extraordinary growth in demand for energy, as well as a recognition that fossil fuels are expected to still meet 65% of energy demand by mid century."
The company added that it was focusing on producing cleaner burning natural gas, low CO2 biofuels for road transport, progressing carbon capture and storage (CCS) and implementing energy efficiency measures in its own operations.
A joint approach
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculated, using various studies, that to have at least a 66% chance of limiting global warming to or less than 3.5°F above pre-industrial levels, no more than one trillion tonnes of carbon can be released into the atmosphere from the beginning of the industrial era through to the end of this century.
The IPCC say the world has already used 531 billion tonnes of that budget up to 2011, with only 469 billion tonnes left.
There’s no doubt the report is a slap-in the face reminder that the world needs to reduce its carbon emissions and that the fossil fuel industry is key to this, therefore they must be part of the conversation, but this has always been easier said than done.
The issue of climate change and reducing emissions has long been a never-ending battlefield between the fossil fuel industry’s powerful lobbyists, some of whom are accused of climate change misinformation campaigns and the growing number of environmentalist groups – with governments often trying to appease both but failing.
It’s made more complex by the problem of increasing fuel prices, often blamed on so-called greedy utility companies, but at other times on heavy government imposed green taxes, plus a growing population and arguments about exploration and production in more environmentally sensitive areas, such as the Arctic and the Amazon.
Any report that keeps the climate change conversation going is valuable, but solutions are needed. Many fossil fuel companies pride themselves on being more sustainable, especially the majors, but the very nature of their work is inherently carbon intensive.
A balance needs to be struck and this can only be led by governments, consumers and figures in power and positions of responsibility whose job it is to think of the wider consequences of climate change.
Of course they must become more responsible, but it’s unrealistic to put the majority of the burden on fossil fuel companies who basically provide a commodity that is in demand and who are primarily beholden to their shareholders, not the wider global community.
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