New, Updated Carbon Majors Dataset Holds Promise for Researchers, Litigators

April 4, 2024 | 9:00 am
A scientist, underwater in diving gear, examines coral reefs and makes notes on an underwater clipboard in Virgin Islands National Park. Warmer ocean temperatures and more acidic waters (from increased carbon dioxide levels) are bleaching and dissolving coral reefs around the world.NPS Climate Change Response/Flickr
Carly Phillips
Research Scientist

Nearly two-thirds of industrial heat-trapping emissions can be traced to just 90 entities. That 2013 headline resulted from the first effort to quantify emissions from the ‘carbon majors’—fossil fuel companies and cement manufacturers whose businesses have contributed an outsized amount of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere.

Since 2013, these data have provided the backbone for research that directly links climate impacts to carbon producing entities—a key component in the fight for climate accountability. I had the opportunity to explore and use this dataset as a co-author on a peer reviewed wildfire attribution study last year, which found that nearly 40% of the total area burned in forests in western North America since 1986 is attributable to emissions traced to the top 88 carbon producers.

While these data have been available since 2014 from the Climate Accountability Institute, the most recent update of this dataset is now easily accessible and explorable on a new platform hosted by InfluenceMap. For researchers, this updated dataset provides an incredible opportunity to conduct litigation relevant research and explore questions of accountability—for the impacts of climate change, for the historical costs of inaction, and for industry’s decades of disinformation and delay.

The data

These data represent the cumulative carbon dioxide and methane emissions from the largest industrial carbon producers. The entities in the data include investor-owned corporations like ExxonMobil and Chevron, state-owned corporations like Saudi Aramco and Pemex, and several current or former nation-states, like China and the former Soviet Union.  

The dataset is the result of painstaking work by Rick Heede, an early leader in the climate accountability movement. Not only did he track down and aggregate production numbers for ninety fossil fuel producers and cement manufacturers, he also traced this information through global geopolitical events, like the fall of the Soviet Union, and corporate shakeups like the dissolution of Standard Oil in the early 20th century and the merger of Exxon and Mobil in 1999.

This dataset uses an emissions accounting framework called scope analysis to classify and quantify emissions from a given entity into three distinct categories. Scope 1 includes operational emissions that are owned or controlled by a given company, like flaring and venting by fossil fuel companies. Scope 2 emissions, which are not included in this data to avoid double counting, are emissions that come from energy purchased by a company. Scope 3 emissions, by contrast, capture emissions throughout a company’s supply chain, including those created through the intended use of a company’s products. For fossil fuel companies, this includes product-specific emissions from combustion of coal, oil, and methane gas. This dataset includes both Scope 1 and Scope 3 emissions. The fossil fuel industry has refused to accept responsibility for reducing Scope 3 emissions, which I explore in the final section of this blog.

Database uses

The Carbon Majors database is a critical resource for corporate accountability for the climate crisis. These data have been used worldwide to demonstrate the central role that fossil fuel manufacturers and cement producers have played in the climate crisis, and to quantify their contributions to specific climate-driven impacts, an area of study known as source attribution research. These data go hand-in-hand with critical disinformation and obstruction research that lays out the coordinated disinformation campaign by fossil fuel producers to deceive the public about the risks of their products, and delay meaningful action on climate change.

Scientists use these data to establish a direct, causal link between emissions and climate impacts

Researchers have leveraged these data to publish multiple peer-reviewed studies that quantify the contributions of major carbon producers to climate change and its impacts. UCS led the way with these source attribution studies that establish a direct causal link between emissions attributable to fossil fuel producing entities and:

These data can be used to seek legal accountability

In addition to contributions to scientific literature, these data are also leveraged by litigators and communities to quantify contributions to climate impacts and events, and seek accountability from corporations. Lawsuits and legal submissions worldwide cite the Carbon Majors Dataset to draw attention to the outsized role of fossil fuel companies in driving the climate crisis, including:

  • Lliuya vs RWE where a Peruvian farmer is suing one of Europe’s largest emitters of heat trapping gases for its role in increasing the risk of a glacial lake outburst flood which threatens his entire community of Huaraz. This case uses the Carbon Majors Dataset to quantify RWE’s contribution to global historic emissions.
  • Greenpeace Italia vs ENI where affected communities are suing to force ENI, Italy’s largest energy company, to reduce emissions and limit global warming. This case uses the Carbon Majors Dataset and source attribution research to underscore the outsized role of ENI in driving climate change.
  • People of California vs Big Oil where the state of California sues ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and others for misleading advertising, failure to warn, and fraudulent business practices.
  • Multnomah County vs Big Oil where the largest county in Oregon, home to Portland, sued ExxonMobil and others for damages and adaptation costs following 2021’s unprecedented and deadly heatwave.
  • Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines which was petitioned to investigate the impact of climate change on human rights and the role of the ‘Carbon Majors’ in driving climate change and obstructing action.
  • InterAmerican Court of Human Rights where Colombia and Chile requested an advisory opinion to clarify states’ human rights obligations in light of climate change. UCS’ recent co-authored submission drew heavily on these data to illustrate that addressing the climate crisis requires that states regulate corporations.

The future

As the consequences from climate change become increasingly severe, the role of accountability will continue to grow, increasing the importance and power of this dataset.

Insights from this dataset provide an important counterfactual to many of the industry’s greenwashing efforts, including the popularization of an individual’s ‘carbon footprint,’ overstating corporate investments in renewable energy, and highlighting misleading climate commitments that rely heavily on unproved and unscaled technologies like carbon capture and storage.

These data also provide an important counterpoint to industry arguments around Scope 3 emissions, which for fossil fuel companies, are roughly 90% of their total emissions. Despite this, many companies insist that consumers should be on the hook for the emissions created when we use their products to drive our cars, heat our homes, or generate electricity. While changing consumption is an important part of the climate action conversation, such talking points from the fossil fuel industry obscure its decades-long campaign of disinformation around climate science, not to mention the resources and political power they have amassed to limit consumers’ options for other forms of energy. These corporations and their surrogates have also co-opted and infiltrated international climate negotiations, further exacerbating the world’s reliance on fossil energy. The SEC removed reporting responsibility for these emissions from its recent climate disclosure rule following pressure from industry, but lawsuits and advocacy around corporate accountability for these emissions continues.

The future of this dataset lies with researchers, litigators, and anyone concerned about accountability for the climate crisis. Corporations have historically been held accountable for the harm caused by the intended use of their products, particularly when deception is involved. This has been true for tobacco, asbestos, and opioids—and fossil fuels should be no different.

The new InfluenceMap platform, which showcases the magnitude and timeline of emissions from the Carbon Majors, is an important step forward in ensuring that everyone, from scientists and consumers to policymakers and investors, understands how a small number of entities have contributed an outsized amount to the climate crisis. Empower yourself with knowledge and explore the data here.