100 companies responsible for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions

The decision of the US, the world’s second largest carbon emitter, to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate treaty has engendered a sense of despair as to whether the problem of climate change can really be tackled. However, a recent report which reveals a highly concentrated picture of carbon emissions – with just 100 fossil fuel producers being responsible for more than 70% of industrial emissions – offers hope that the attainment of this goal is still within the realm of the possible.

Chee Yoke Heong

A HUNDRED fossil fuel producers account for 71% of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions from 1988-2015 and more than half (52%) of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted since the start of the industrial revolution in 1751.

And just 25 corporate and state producers are responsible for over half of global industrial emissions since 1988, the year in which human-induced climate change was officially recognised through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). 

These groundbreaking figures, which show a highly concentrated picture of emissions, are revealed in the Carbon Majors Report 2017 released in July, which traces the GHG emissions contribution of companies worldwide.

Fossil fuels are the largest source of human-induced GHG emissions in the world. The fossil fuel industry and its products accounted for 91% of global industrial GHGs in 2015, and about 70% of all human-induced GHG emissions, according to the report.

The highest-emitting companies that are public investor-owned include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, Total and BHP Billiton, while major state-owned companies include Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil, Coal India, Pemex and CNPC (PetroChina).

Of the emissions from the top 100 producers since 1988, almost a third (32%) come from publicly listed investor-owned companies, 59% from state-owned companies, and 9% from private investment.

The report also found that all fossil fuel company operations and products worldwide have released more emissions in the last 28 years than in the 237 years previously: 833 GtCO2e in the 28-year period from 1988 to 2015, compared with 820 GtCO2e in the 237 years between 1988 and 1751.

If the trend in fossil fuel extraction continues over the next 28 years as it has over the previous 28, then global average temperatures would rise around 4ºC above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century, with the possibility of substantial species extinction and food scarcity risks, according to the report. (The international community has accepted that global temperature rise should be limited to 1.5ºC or 2ºC in order to prevent catastrophic effects from climatic change.)

The report also noted that coal production in the last 15 years has vastly expanded and this has led to a 2.4% increase in the overall global emissions intensity of fossil fuels since 1988.

In China, growth in coal production has tripled to nearly 4 billion tonnes since 2000, representing half of global output. Most of this expansion has occurred in the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and Inner Mongolia, with companies such as Shenhua, Datong and China Coal Energy as key players.

Citing the Chinese-based data service company sxcoal, the report said production from the top 50 coal company groups in 2015 amounted to 71% of national production. Half of Chinese coal production came from 15 company groups, and a third of national production from just seven companies, namely Shenhua Group, Datong Coal Mine Group, China National Coal Group, Shandong Energy Group, Shaanxi Coal Chemical Industry, Shanxi Coking Coal Group and the Yankuang Group.

As the world’s sixth largest coal producer, Russia has seen production increase by 70% since the late 1990s to 373 million tonnes in 2015.

The report also expressed concern over the large investments made by companies such as Suncor, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and ConocoPhillips into carbon-intensive ‘unconventional oils’ in the form of extraction of oil sands, tight oil and heavy oils which have a greater environmental impact than conventional crude oil.

The report called on investors to exert their influence on companies to take responsibility to, among others, reduce their GHG emissions. As Pedro Faria, Technical Director at CDP, the publisher of the report, put it: ‘[T]he report shows that investors in fossil fuel companies own a great legacy of almost a third of all industrial GHG emissions, and carry influence over one fifth of the world’s industrial GHG emissions today. That puts a significant responsibility on those investors to engage with carbon majors and urge them to disclose climate risk in line with the FSB Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations, and set ambitious emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets initiative to ensure they are aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement.’

The fact that GHG emissions are concentrated largely within a small group of companies may perhaps provide some consolation in the global fight to tackle climate change. By focusing on getting these major emitters to reduce their carbon footprint, much progress can be made towards averting climate catastrophe.

Chee Yoke Heong is a researcher with the Third World Network.

*Third World Resurgence No. 321, May 2017, pp 2-3