Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions

Chevron, Exxon and BP among companies most responsible for climate change since dawn of industrial age, figures show

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

Fossil fuel produces deserve a lot of blame for for the current state of the debate on climate change. Many of them distorted the debate by funding the spread of misinformation and outright falsehoods. We, rightly, should be very angry at them for this. But when they dig up and sell fossil fuels they are only doing what we pay them to do. If it weren’t for us wanting things like electricity and the ability to move quickly from point a to point b, fossil fuel producers would have happily left all that carbon in the ground.

Ultimately we must shoulder much of the blame.

UPDATE: The Onion brings the satire:

New Report Finds Climate Change Caused By 7 Billion Key Individuals

WASHINGTON—In a landmark report experts say fundamentally reshapes our understanding of the global warming crisis, new data published this week by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that the phenomenon is caused primarily by the actions of 7 billion key individuals.

These several billion individuals, who IPCC officials confirmed are currently operating in 195 countries worldwide, are together responsible for what experts called the “lion’s share” of the devastating consequences of global warming affecting the entire planet.

“We’re actually looking at a situation where a select group of individuals—7,125,985,886 of them, to be exact—are singlehandedly responsible for global warming and are refusing to do anything about it,” author and activist Dan Cregmann told reporters, noting that these culprits have a horrible track record of following recommended environmental guidelines and disclosing their total energy consumption. “Many of these offenders have of course pledged goals for fighting climate change and going green in their daily operations, but statistics show these proclamations have been largely ineffective and halfhearted at best.”

18 thoughts on “Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions

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  1. I know elsewhere will there will be lots of criticism and discussion by people who only read the Guardian article, but some people here will probably want to read the actual study, which is open access:


    Based on the consumers are to blame line, maybe we need to work out which societies, and who within those societies as consumption will be uneven, should pay for adaption? Introduce a historical, retrospective carbon tax as well as one going forward? Of course the more well off will, unlike the carbon tax, be against that, as it would hit their ability to jet off to foreign climes harder than a forward going tax alone would do.

    1. A carbon tax going forward is an idea I wholeheartedly support, but not that is retroactive. That opens up a whole other can of worms that will only make things more complicated.

    2. For a very thoughtful examination of the can of worms, I would recommend Ray Pierrehumbert’s: Cumulative Carbon and Just Allocation of the Global Carbon Common.


      This is one of the best pieces I have read in a long time, combining the insights of one of the best climate scientists (Pierrehumbert) with those of our most challenging moral philosopher, Peter Singer.

      Like it or not, calls for reparations for past emissions are going to be a feature that will bug all future global negotiations. Developed nations will not respond favourably to this demand, making it impossible to find a way to justly apportion the remaining carbon budget.

      A particular worry of mine is that some developing nations, faced with a climate crisis, may use the notion of the past uncompensated atmospheric imperialism by rich nations as a moral justification for launching a unilateral assault on the climate, by means of solar radiation management.

    3. A particular worry of mine is that some developing nations, faced with a climate crisis, may use the notion of the past uncompensated atmospheric imperialism by rich nations as a moral justification for launching a unilateral assault on the climate, by means of solar radiation management.

      I don’t really worry but actually hope that with Warsaw COP19 the “developing” world and global NGOs will finally realize: The criminal climate neglect by the developed world amounts to an implicit declaration of global war. The only way forward seems to leave the U.N. climate circus alone and organize separately and do some really “agressive” things, e.g. tariff walls taxing carbon footprint, e.g. a global trade boycott movement against fossil dictatorships like Canada and Australia. Just forget about the insanity of the “first world” and go your own way. Coal and oil are no longer of any help if you want sustainable development.

      Instead of solar radiation management I suggest soil management. Prime example: SEKEM in Egypt. That’s development. The only serious example I know.

    4. That Pierrehumbert is terrific. Thanks.

      We are all busy hemming and hawing, and that won’t get anything done. Humans are more evolved to complete than to share.

    5. Like it or not, calls for reparations for past emissions are going to be a feature that will bug all future global negotiations.

      Rich countries who caused the lions share of the problem should help out poorer countries who face the lions share of the costs of unmitigated climate change. You will get no argument from me on that (though I would say it it would be preferable to decouple climate aid from emissions reductions). My main concern was with funding this with a retroactive tax.

  2. The current negotiations are stalled because Annex 1 countries won’t stump up to help other countries adapt to the issues caused by existing (and ongoing) emissions. This study is looking at the problem from a different perspective, and is suggesting that the funding could be worked out a different way.

    I’m not saying it is right, and I’m not dismissing the point that ultimately it’s the consumers who are to blame. But that’s a lazy dismissal that doesn’t address the point of the study.

    If the argument is that these entities (companies, states, etc.) are in effect blameless as it’s the consumers who are to blame, then the follow-up is that the consumers should pay for the adaptation costs. The question would be how? Via their governments, or a direct, retrospective tax? Or that developing countries should adapt without any financial assistance from the people who benefited?

    This study has pointed out that half of the emissions have been since 1986, so if we ignored all the earlier warnings (as the Annex 1 countries want), then there’s still half the emissions (and ongoing) that need paying for. This study does show the supply chains and thus would make it easier to see who the consumers were.

    I don’t have a strong opinion on this, but there’s been some lazy criticism of the study based on not looking into its drivers. It *looks* like some people see it as something that avoids a purely market view of the world, and therefore can be dismissed, while the issues it looks at can be ignored. I’m sure that’s not the reality though.

  3. It’s a gnarly problem. From the beginning of human time we have survived by taking what we can find. The idea that this is exploitation enrages people; indeed, how else we could survive. It is balanced by a capacity for caring and compassion and creativity. There is also a streak of blindness, selfishness, and downright cruelty, particularly in the ownership classes (that word “class” is difficult). We humans are odd creatures.

    I’ve been so bad tempered lately (too much DotEarth) that it has provoked some self-examination. I’m convinced that we’ve gone badly off course and that marketing is our biggest problem, perhaps since the advent of TV. But that is a scale problem and only mirrors our tendencies. There is no point in recorded history on any scale worthy of note where ownership was not accompanied by substantial lack of self-awareness about our effect on other people.

    How exactly are we to succeed without destroying our home?

    The galloping escalation of salesmanship has taken on a life of its own, divorced from meaning and morality. We’ve been persuaded this is OK. Outside of the tiny group bent on philosophizing and criticizing, most people don’t give it a moment’s thought. They just want what they want.

    And who’s to say they’re wrong. I care for my family by driving a lot, and the alternative would have been to either neglect them or give up my home and independence. Who wants to lose independence.

    Isn’t that a big part of what this is all about?

    On the whole, big fossil is indeed to blame, with their wholly self-referential and dishonest promotion of an alternate universe that they must know is simply not true. In any case, true or not, this campaign has produced such confusion that there is to my eye no way out.

  4. Blaming the oil and coal companies makes no sense in my opinion. 

    If producing fossil fuels is profitable, companies will produce them. If lying about the consequences protects those profits, the lies will be forthcoming. 

    Publicly traded corporations are not people with an ethical sense, even if people are involved in working them, and some of them have an ethical sense.

    Wall Street corporations are machines for optimizing profit. We benefit from their production immensely. On the whole it is by far the best system for enhancing human well-being ever implemented. 

    But government is a crucial component of the system. We control them only by setting and enforcing rules for their operation. Appealing to their conscience is a Canute-like delusion. They will happily fire anyone whose conscience gets in the way of their simple clear-cut mission. We collectively must provide the ethical constraints through regulation.

    Fossil fuel interests have no particular advantage in wind or solar or nuclear energy. 

    The oil companies do have skills that transfer to geological CO2 sequestration and it’s very much in their interests that this be part of the mix, as it retains some of the value of their reserves and most of the value of their physical capital and intellectual capital. I think we have little to offer to coal companies or their employees – their product will be more expensive at best. 

    The temptation to demonize the fossil energy sector is obvious; it’s traditional on the left and the right. And to be sure, their historical record in dealing with environments and indigenous peoples is fraught with crimes and horrors; their history doesn’t make it easy to treat them as legitimate stakeholders.

    But our entire civilization is based on their services – they’re absolutely right about that. We can’t just fire them today and build a pure renewable system tomorrow. They are a key stakeholder in the transition as well as a crucial component of how we live now. 

    I very much hope we can make carbon sequestration work for these reasons. At present the main problems appear to be political and regulatory, not technical.

    1. My thoughts exactly. In fact I made similar comments over at Stoat’s after you had written this but before I read your (much better) comment here.

      I am always a little queasy about appeals to corporations to act ethically.

      For one thing, whose ethics? It’s not like we have achieved any kind of cultural consensus on right and wrong, even in our own societies.

      Secondly, corporate leaders should not be granted the right to set and impose ethical standards. It is likely that those standards will be those of Western Educated Industrial and Democratic people (WEIRD ethics, after Haidt) not those of the majority of the planet’s less fortunate.

      Having worked for a big corporation in a developing country, I couldn’t help feeling that some of the ethics imposed by us on local employees could be paternalistic at times. Even what seemed to be no-brainers, for example, making hiring decisions based on merit rather than nepotism, could easily be seen, from the other side, as placing cold, corporate efficiency above traditional family values.

      So, no, I don’t want the plutocrats who are running the fossil fuel businesses to make their own climate policy. It’s the responsibility of governments–and the voters who elect them–to set the regulations and taxes to make change happen.

    2. “Blaming the oil and coal companies makes no sense in my opinion.”

      I do wonder what overlap there is between those who argue that we consumers are entirely, or almost entirely, to blame for emissions and those who argue that emissions from goods produced, for example, in China for export to the UK, should be counted as Chinese emissions rather than the UK’s. I may be wrong but I suspect there is quite a large overlap, yet the two positions would be contradictory at root.

      In both cases I think it makes sense to say that responsibility, and blame, is shared between the consumer and the producer. The consumer has a responsibility to reduce their consumption and to choose, where possible, the lowest-emissions option. The producer has a responsibility to provide low-emissions options.

      The oil companies are some of the largest corporations on the planet and some of the only organisations that work on timescales of multiple decades. They therefore have both the resources and the incentive to act on the issue of climate change and could be a significant part of the solution. Blame only makes sense if there is some hope that it will result in a change of action and naive though it may be I do think there is some hope of action from the major oil companies.

    3. You leave out the marketing apparatus and big media circus, which marries these to profits. In any case, blame is in some ways a sucker’s game.

      However, I do not share the optimism that we can find a tech solution to ballooning consumption. As far as I’ve been able to discern, the years have only added bulk to the obvious, that carbon capture is expensive and not happening.

      Slightly offside, but I’d mention lawns and leafblowers as a classic example where simple thought could make radical improvements but we are getting the opposite. This mentions bees as well:


      “The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear”

      Last year’s low of 60 million now seems great compared with the fewer than three million that have shown up so far this year. Some experts fear that the spectacular migration could be near collapse.
      That means reversing the hegemony of chemically green lawns. “If you’ve got just lawn grass, you’ve got nothing,” said Mace Vaughan of the Xerces Society, a leading organization in insect conservation. “But as soon as you create a front yard wildflower meadow you go from an occasional honeybee to a lawn that might be full of 20 or 30 species of bees and butterflies and monarchs.

    4. Try instead:

      “Blaming the consumers makes no sense in my opinion. If consuming fossil fuels enhances comfort, people will consume them. If lying about the consequences protects that comfort, the lies will be forthcoming.”

      Perfect. All are blameless, all are immune to pressure. Governments? Well, of course a parallel excuse can be constructed. Thank goodness we’re not facing an existential crisis, or this sort of thinking might become a problem.


      But hopefully the serious point is clear enough.

  5. The language in the Guardian article is not helpful, though it does reflect the (slightly more nuanced) paper itself. I don’t read what it’s doing as attempting to apportion blame – though the word “cause” does crop up.

    Identifying firms digging up the most carbon doesn’t automatically mean holding them directly responsible, but it appears we have to have this conversation about responsibility / cause source / blame all at the same time and its a bit of a mess. There are different reasons to focus on one or the other aspect of “source”.

    E.g. talking about China being the biggest CO2 producer makes sense if one is focusing on international climate talks, as they have sovereignty to make commitments at those talks on behalf of the whole country. It makes little to no sense per capita, of course, before we even get on to OPatrick’s point about consumption vs production emissions, and China would have a point bringing both of those up at negotiations – but ultimately, there’s national policy to be made.

    And its only a parallel to blaming governments or their people: are we purely responsible as national voters for climate policy or should we expect some leadership? Or is it more complex than picking a side?

    Andy: “I am always a little queasy about appeals to corporations to act ethically.”

    Absolutely. It’s happened a lot recently in the UK in relation to our tax regime: companies have been berated for not paying more tax than legally required. That’s a bizarre argument, to my mind, but politicians jumped on that one as well. What I take from identifying specific firms isn’t that we should wag our finger at them and hope they’ll stop digging it up, but just another way to think about the consumption/production problem beyond sovereign boundaries. 350.org has been mentioned elsewhere too – identifying firms gives a way for campaigners to pursue divestment from carbon-intensive activities. “Blame” isn’t a useful word there – it’s just about withdrawing investment.

    The paper says it “invites consideration of the suggestion that some degree of responsibility for both cause and remedy for climate change rests with those entities that have extracted, refined, and marketed the preponderance of the historic carbon fuels.” ‘Some degree of responsibility’ seems reasonable to me.

  6. Cf. This on shareholder activism at Ensia: “In 2010, a coalition of investor advocates convinced the SEC to require all public companies to acknowledge what financial risks climate change could pose to their business. Yet recent studies have found that company compliance is low, so shareholders are continuing to push individual companies to take a hard, data-driven look at what climate change will mean for them.”

    It notes the problem of “really significant controversies that are not going to be resolved by sitting down over a cup of coffee. They have to do with the basic direction of a company’s business.”

    But assuming for a moment that we do succeed in curtailing / eventually stopping the atmosphere being used as a dump for co2, if the basic direction of a company is co2-based, they’re going to need to diversify. It’s also important to identify where slowly strangling carbon output might lead to political instability.

    I was also reminded of Will Hutton’s work on industrial governance and stewardship. Note also this Stiglitz edited book due out soon: “policymakers have taken a keen interest in the various ways smart industrial policy can help sustain growth and open up new possibilities for employment creation.”

    Quibble with the growth language, maybe, but I think it’s heartening to see this being talked about. The solutions aren’t ideological, they’re fairly boringly mixed-market. (cf. Diane Coyle noting the `markets good / public bad’ stereotype.)

    It’s in all that context I see identifying specific firms as useful: it’s not to string anyone up but to work towards developing collective policy that breaks us out of a tragedy of the commons dynamic. I liked what that first link said here: “It helps, too, that shareholders no longer have to prove that climate change matters to each company’s bottom line. `Having the SEC say that climate is a material risk changed the debate’.” Part of the job that needs doing is exactly that kind of debate-changing: bringing those firms digging the carbon up into that same place where (a) they acknowledge the trajectory we *must* take if we’re to leave a liveable planet for our children (b) end up within reporting / action frameworks that make greenwashing impossible.

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