Who Is Responsible for Climate Change? New Study Identifies the Top 90 Producers of Industrial Carbon Emissions

, director of science & policy | November 21, 2013, 3:17 pm EDT
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Today’s publication in the journal Climatic Change by Richard Heede on Tracing anthropogenic carbon dioxide and methane emissions to fossil fuel and cement producers, 1854–2010 provides a robust scientific basis for motivating fresh thinking and dialogue about responsibility for taking action to address climate change.

The responsibilities for climate change fall on many shoulders, of course — from individuals through the daily choices we make, to emitting industries, to nations. But some are more responsible than others. Drawing upon several years of painstaking research, Heede shows that nearly two-thirds, 63 percent, of all industrial carbon dioxide and methane released to the atmosphere can be traced to fossil fuel and cement production by just 90 entities — investor-owned companies, such as Chevron and Exxon-Mobil; primarily state-run companies, such as Gazprom and Saudi Aramco; and solely government-run industries, such as in the former Soviet Union and China (for its coal production).

The top 20 entities, shown here, produced 48 percent of all industrial carbon pollution, with 15 percent produced by another 70 entities. Look to the paper and to Heede’s website CarbonMajors.org for more detailed figures, methods, and the underlying data.


Heede, director of the Climate Accountability Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, and formerly at the Rocky Mountain Institute, is a long-standing collaborator. We’ve worked together to explore what lessons for climate accountability  might be drawn from understanding how the science of health risks from smoking informed the history of tobacco control. UCS provided funding to ensure that his Climatic Change paper is open-access, available to all readers without charge. And we’re working together with a team of top-notch climate modelers to measure how much of the rise on global average temperature and specific climate change impacts can be attributed to the emissions traced to the major industrial carbon producers Heede identifies. Our first results will be presented at next month’s annual meeting at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco (click on “Fall Meeting Program” at this link and search for “Heede” in “Search Program”).

Public, policy, legal, and investor decisions over the attribution of responsibility for climate change can be informed but not determined by scientific data alone. What kind of dialogue, informed by these data, do we need? Here’s what Heede concludes:

“Most analyses to date, including the UNFCCC (UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) structure, consider responsibility in terms of nation-states…. However, responsibilities can also be understood in other ways as well, as done in the present analysis tracing emissions to major carbon producers. 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…..Regulation, litigation, and shareholder actions targeted at the private entities responsible for tobacco-related diseases played a significant role in the history of tobacco control; one could imagine 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.”

Let the conversation begin. And stay tuned here for more science to inform it.

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  • Alberta bitumen is strip-mined and steam-melted from sands and silts; it takes two tons of earth, three barrels of water, and lots of natural gas to extract one barrel of raw bitumen, which is almost a solid and thus has to be mixed 50/50 with condensed natural gas, (after which it is called DilBit, diluted bitumen) to move it through the pipes or pump it into rail cars… The Massive Exploitation of Alberta Tar Sands (MEATS) currently consumes, per day, enough natural gas to heat 3 million homes, and fouls 400 million gallons of water. Wastewater is pumped into immense tailing ponds rich in arsenic, cyanide, ammonia, cadmium, lead, mercury, nickel, zinc — not to mention the biotical gumbo of hydrocarbons — seventy-five square miles of tailing ponds, so far. That is a lot of carbon being put into our atmosphere and if the Keystone XL pipeline goes through the mining operations in Northern Alberta it would increase at least 250%. That would be enough natural gas to heat 7.5 million homes putting all the more pollution into the air getting the bitumen out and does not count the increased use of this very dirty energy end-products putting more carbons up there daily and 1 billion gallons of fresh water being turned into a toxic mix that cannot be cleaned up every day. I cannot understand how anyone can say that stopping the KXL will not effect climate change when they consider the energy expended in the extraction process now and what it would be increased to if KXL goes through…

  • John K.

    Until quite recently, the world was quite happy to have this carbon dug up and burned- it provided us with cheap energy and allowed civilization to advance and prosper. Was there ever any question as to who was digging it up for us to use? Is anyone denying that they provided us with fossil fuels? We may as well research who made the cigarettes we happily smoked in ignorant bliss.

    Now that we know the true cost of this carbon pollution, instead of pointing fingers, it is our task to learn how to avoid making more of it. Obviously, those who became wildly rich by providing us with fossil fuels are not going to play along, and trying to blame them will not help us persuade them.

    • Anthony Israel

      Those who produced the fossil fuels and carbon pollution of the past, before we knew the climate ruining effects, are the same ones that would and will dig up the remaining climate killing fossil fuels still in the ground. They will do it for the same reason, profit, and must therefor be held accountable for their actions…

  • When you want the truth, do some more homework. “Climate change” or “global warming” has been proven false so many times and in so many ways. Gore’s movie had so many holes. Forty years ago we were talking about global cooling until somebody figured out there was no money to be made so they switched positions, falsified data and bilked people and governments out of ‘green’ money. You can blame the oil companies for whatever ‘evil’ you want, but nearly everything you own runs on or is made from oil. It will not change, oil will not go away. So stop blaming the oil companies for something that isn’t true in the first place.

    • Mike D

      Why do 97% of climate scientists say climate change, global warming, is indeed happening?

      You are the perfect example of people who live in an information bubble of their own making, people who never bother to read anything that conflicts with their views.

      • Nicholas G

        Make that 99.8% of peer reviewed papers support the proposition.

        @Stephen – please educate yourself in scientific methodology before providing commentary on it.

  • Guy Steucek

    I learned “fuel, fossil fuel, is cheaper than labor, even volunteer labor.”
    As a farmer it is difficult to avoid fossil fuel.

  • Michael R.

    The distinction that corporations extract fossil fuel, but it is we who consume it (burn it), is only partly true (it’s “fuzzy”).

    The massive, global industry that builds the machines, moves the machines, extracts the fuel, transports this fuel, refines this fuel, and then (again) transports it to market…generates an enormous quantity of carbon pollution (largely unmeasured re: waste/pollution is considered an “externality”)…then add additional sources such as “refugee” emissions from fracking wells, improperly sealed wells, fracking waste disposal (other sources that I am probably leaving out)…and then added very real risk of environmental contamination (BP Spill, Valdez, etc.) and all the costs (in fuel) to clean it up…and one can say very confidently that those who extract most assuredly pollute more and do more environmental harm (even adjusted for scale) — probably on a massive level.

    A study that would be of great value going forward would be one that calculates TOTAL emissions — the complete energy/process chain — generated by the largest extraction companies — from the first plan to drill to the final deliverable.

    This would actually be beneficial to Big Energy…If done independently and thoroughly, it would show these companies how much they use and waste (all of which goes to cost), and thus help them improve operations, become more efficient (increase bottom line), and do less environmental harm.

    That said, as the top commenter noted: the oil/coil/gas is not offered for sale in the hopes that people will save or conserve it, but that they will burn it, insuring its perpetuation; this is “using the product as it was intended to be used”. Big Energy money and power insures that the average person (who, say, must drive to work to survive* [public transport option]) must realistically use their product as intended — though this is becoming less of a coercive type thing with the market intrusion of electric or hybrid cars. However, a growing (and working) poverty class can hardly afford to purchase an electric car these days, so even this slight consumer advantage is becoming inaccessible for many.

    * As to cars not providing a “return” for the consumer…this is not so…millions of car commuters derive income partly or wholly derived from the use of their cars.

    • Michael R.

      that should read “no public transport option”

  • Mark Patterson

    The previous three comments are consistent, I think, with Heede’s quoted statement that “responsibilities can also be understood in other ways as well.” It isn’t clear why initial production is the best measure, even if it might be better than country of emission. As the commenters suggest, lots of entities are responsible. How about, instead of responsibility based on initial producers, something like responsibility based on profits in production-and-consumption chain? I suppose, though, that it should include hedonic “profits” of individuals driving their cars, as the other commenters suggest.

    • Peter Frumhoff

      Thanks for your comment, Mark. To my mind, the most useful question raised by Heede’s analysis is not “are industrial carbon producers the most responsible” but rather “what are the particular responsibilities of industrial carbon producers to limit further climate change or pay for climate-change related damages?”

      A comparison of relative responsibility based on relative profits in the supply chain is an interesting suggestion. But other factors matter as well – the scale of their impact to date on emissions and the climate as Heede highlights, their distinctive technical and financial capacity to invest in low carbon energy solutions, the role that some of the largest fossil energy companies and their trade associations have played to sow confusion about climate science and resist regulation, and their future impact on the climate if the fossil energy stored in their reserves is used as intended.

  • I have to agree with previous commentator… and in addition, I can’t say we should punish only those industries, haven’t we all used their products? So it means we are also responsible, for the big change!

  • Energy companies don’t exist in a vacuum, they produce fuel for users. Regarding the five major oil companies, they produce a loss-leader for the auto, real estate, insurance, highway building and finance industries. No cars = none of the above related fuel use.

    The carbon argument orbits around car use, as does the entire debt argument.

    Aside from spewing billions of tons of carbon, nitrogenic and other toxic compounds into the air and water, autos do not offer any return by way of their use other than for commercial operators; most of this last is contrived. What supports auto use is debt in amounts of hundreds of trillions of dollars. Autos are poisoning us and bankrupting us at the same time.

    Solve the climate problem = get rid of the cars.

    • Michael Connolly

      People buy cars because urban areas are engineered so as to require cars. YOUR choice to buy a specific model is a “free” choice. But 140 million Americans have NOT chosen to make the automobile central to their lives. The design choices are made off-line by industry, finance (including the insurance companies) and real estate developers. Government gives them what they demand, largely.

  • Thad

    Richard is not as wise as he thinks. There is a large mis-conception in his article — these 90 entities produce a product but not the emissions. The emissions are created by us – the consumer of the product – a lump of coal produces no emission until burned in a furnace, a gallon of gasoline produces no emissions until use in a car to go get groceries.
    And what does he suggest to reverse man use of these products– Or the UN or the UCS — that man become stagnate, live in one place, sleep in the dark and cold eat raw food off the land–

  • Doug Hendren M.D.

    @Anonymous: The breakdown of private, state-owned and government-run is something I have not seen before, and may be useful in understanding best strategies for redirecting these interests. Whereas the private sector tries always to profit from externalizing costs, the state that owns carbon-emitting technology also has to absorb the cost of the “externalities” (i.e., they may be “external” to Exxon, but are not external to the state. It seems that China is starting to recognize this, and starting to make more rational decisions than we are able to do in the US. I am guessing that the nation supplied by fully private entities will experience the most bitter polarization, and the most protracted political struggle, but I don’t know where Germany or Poland might fit in, as they would appear to contradict my assumption.

    • Michael Connolly

      In Germany, co-determination (Mitbestimmung) has been the law since about 1978. Mitbestimmung requires that workers (hence unions) be represented on corporate boards of directors. This broadens the firm’s perspective as to what is “external.”

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing this new research. I wonder, however, what is really new about it. We’ve always known that the oil companies (& other heavy industry) were primary sources of GHG emissions. Although many of the oil companies were staunchly opposed to acknowledging anthropogenic climate change and their role in it, others (such as BP) became active agents in forming European & attempted US policies. Through organizations such as USCAP, these firms have been part of the policy conversation. So, at the risk of sounding like a cynic, I wonder, what new conversational & political possibilities does this research really offer?