Just 90 companies are to blame for most climate change: Over half of global industrial emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers

Carbon Disclosure Project, 2017:  ‘Carbon Majors’ research finds 100 active fossil fuel producers including ExxonMobil, Shell, BHP Billiton and Gazprom are linked to 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988.

  • Carbon Majors Database is the most comprehensive dataset of historic company greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions ever compiled;
  • 100 active fossil fuel producers are linked to 71% of global industrial greenhouse gases (GHGs) since 1988, the year in which human-induced climate change was officially recognized through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC);
  • Almost a third (32%) of historic emissions come from publicly listed investor-owned companies, 59% from state-owned companies, and 9% from private investment;
  • Over half of global industrial emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 25 corporate and state producers;
  • Fossil fuel companies and their products have released more emissions in the last 28 years than in the 237 years prior to 1988;
  • Over half (52%) of all global industrial GHGs emitted since the start of the industrial revolution in 1751, have been traced to these 100 fossil fuel producers;
  • Low carbon tipping point in reach if investors and carbon majors take urgent climate action.

July 10, 2017: Historic new research from CDP, voted no. 1 climate change research provider by institutional investors, in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute, today reveals that 71% of all global GHG1 emissions since 1988 can be traced to just 100 fossil fuel producers. This group is the source of 635 billion tonnes of GHGs emitted since 1988, the year human-induced climate change was officially recognized. The data also shows that 32% of these legacy emissions come from companies that are public investor-owned, highlighting the power of investors in the transition to a sustainable economy. The Carbon Majors report has been produced using the most comprehensive dataset of historic company-related greenhouse gas emissions produced to date.

The report also shows that these global-scale emissions are concentrated over a small number of producers. From 1988 to 2015, just 25 fossil fuel producers are linked to 51% of global industrial GHG emissions. The highest emitting companies over the period since 1988 include:

  • Public investor owned companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, Total, and BHP Billiton;
  • State-owned entities such as Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil, Coal India, Pemex, CNPC and Chinese coal, of which Shenhua Group & China National Coal Group are key players.

Looking further back in time, the report also points towards a doubling in the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change since 1988. 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 the birth of the industrial revolution, measured from 1751. Including all historical years of data2, the database captures nearly one trillion tonnes (923 billion) of GHGs from the 1003 producers, which amounts to 52% of all industrial GHGs ever emitted.

If the trend in fossil fuel extraction continues over the next 28 years as it has over the last 28, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4ºC by the end of the century4 – likely to entail substantial species extinction and large food scarcity risks worldwide5.

Pedro Faria, Technical Director at CDP says:

“This ground-breaking report pinpoints how a relatively small set of just 100 fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions. We are seeing critical shifts in policy, innovation and financial capital that put the tipping point for a low carbon transition in reach, and this historic data shows how important the role of the carbon majors, and the investors who own them, will be.”

“In particular, the 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 new CDP database also makes projections out to 2100 to illustrate the role of companies in addressing climate change. This follows a recent Oil and Gas sector report6 from CDP which revealed the industry is starting to transition to renewable energy. It found that European majors are outperforming their US peers in the shift to climate governance and strategy investment in low-carbon technology. In May this year, ExxonMobil shareholders called on the organisation to act on climate change.

Richard Heede of The Climate Accountability Institute adds:

“From carbon capture to clean energy, to methane mitigation to operational efficiencies, fossil fuel majors will have to demonstrate leadership by contributing to the low carbon transition at the scale and pace required. Fossil fuel extraction companies will need to plan their future in the context of a radical transformation of the global energy system. They owe it to the millions of clients they serve who are already feeling the effects of climate change, to consumers and investors, and to the many millions more that require energy for the comfort of their daily lives but are looking for alternatives to their products.”

Earlier this month CDP welcomed the FSB Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) recommendations to integrate climate information into mainstream financial filings. The report calls for increased governance that will bring climate change more squarely into the boardroom.

CDP is the leading global platform for environmental disclosure, insight and action for investors, companies, cities, states and regions.

The CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017 is available here.

– ENDS –

For more information please contact

Caroline Barraclough
ESG Communications
t: +44 (0)7503 771694
e: carolineb@esgcomms.com

Charlotte Webster
Communications Manager
t: +44 (0)7990 583307
e: charlotte.webster@cdp.net

About CDP 

CDP is an international non-profit that drives companies and governments to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, safeguard water resources and protect forests. Voted number one climate research provider by investors and working with institutional investors with assets of US$100 trillion, we leverage investor and buyer power to motivate companies to disclose and manage their environmental impacts. Nearly 6,000 companies with some 60% of global market capitalization disclosed environmental data through CDP in 2016. This is in addition to the over 500 cities and 100 states and regions who disclosed, making CDP’s platform one of the richest sources of information globally on how companies and governments are driving environmental change. CDP, formerly Carbon Disclosure Project, is a founding member of the We Mean Business Coalition. Please follow @CDP to find out more. www.cdp.net

About Climate Accountability Institute 

CAI is an independent research institute focusing on anthropogenic climate change, dangerous interference with the climate system, the contribution of fossil fuel producers’ carbon production to atmospheric carbon dioxide content, and the risk and disclosure requirements of fossil fuel producers regarding emissions of greenhouse gases. CAI gratefully acknowledges financial support from Wallace Global Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

About Carbon Majors

Download the Carbon Majors Report 2017 
Download the Carbon Majors Dataset 2017 
Download the Carbon Majors Methodology 2017

  • The Carbon Majors Database signals a break from traditional emission accounting methods, in that operational and product GHG emissions are attributed upstream to the producer. In-so-doing, global scale GHG emissions are traced to a small number of corporate decision-makers. The Carbon Majors Database in its original form was completed in 2013 by Richard Heede, Director of the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI). CDP began its relationship with the CAI in 2015 and is committed to keeping the Database securely stored, updated, and accessible to all stakeholders
  • Non-disclosed emissions are estimated using the method established in the IPCC’s 2006 ‘Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories’. Nearly all activity data is collected from sources available in the public domain, most of which are found in company annual reports and securities filings.
  • 90% of emissions in the Database comes from the combustion of their natural gas, oil, and coal (classified by WRI’s GHG Protocol as Scope 3 Category 11 ‘use of sold products’), and the remainder are operational emissions such as own-use of products, venting and flaring, and fugitive releases of methane (which fall under Scope 1). To help ensure accuracy, liquid hydrocarbon data is split into crude oils, natural gas liquids, and bitumen, while coal products are split by grade, such as bituminous and lignite, or by application, such as thermal and metallurgical.

1 This excludes ‘non-industrial’ sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions such as carbon dioxide from land-use change and agricultural methane.
2 The earliest year of company data collected is 1854.
3 In addition, the Database contains 8 large non-extant producers, raising total emissions to 1,090 GtCO2e, or 62% of global industrial GHG emissions since 1751.
4 Compared with the IEA 6DS scenario projecting nearly a 4ºC rise by the end of the century, and 5.5ºC in the long-term.
5 Based on the IPCC (2014) AR5 WGII ‘Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability’ report’s assessment on some of the impacts associated with a 4ºC rise.
6 https://www.cdp.net/en/investor/sector-research/oil-and-gas-report

The output of this oil refinery in Rodeo, California, is a small part of Richard Heede’s carbon inventory.


Just 90 companies are to blame for most climate change, this ‘carbon accountant’ says, Science Magazine,

Last month, geographer Richard Heede received a subpoena from Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith, a climate change doubter, became concerned when the attorneys general of several states launched investigations into whether ExxonMobil had committed fraud by sowing doubts about climate change even as its own scientists knew it was taking place. The congressman suspected a conspiracy between the attorneys general and environmental advocates, and he wanted to see all the communications among them. Predictably, his targets included advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace, 350.org, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. They also included Heede, who works on his own aboard a rented houseboat on San Francisco Bay in California.

Heede is less well known than his fellow recipients, but his work is no less threatening to the fossil fuel industry. Heede (pronounced “Heedie”) has compiled a massive database quantifying who has been responsible for taking carbon out of the ground and putting it into the atmosphere. Working alone, with uncertain funding, he spent years piecing together the annual production of every major fossil fuel company since the Industrial Revolution and converting it to carbon emissions.

Carbon dioxide emissions from Carbon Majors

Heede’s research shows that nearly two-thirds of anthropogenic carbon emissions originated in just 90 companies and government-run industries. Among them, the top eight companies — ranked according to annual and cumulative emissions below — account for 20 percent of world carbon emissions from fossil fuels and cement production since the Industrial Revolution. Click on the “play” button to play through the animated graphics. To view a specific year, pause the animation and hover over the individual charts (or tap on the charts if you are using a mobile device).

The study provoked controversy when it was published in 2013, with some complaining that it unfairly held the fossil fuel industry responsible for the lifestyle choices made by billions of consumers. “It’s a cop-out to blame the producers of products that we have demanded, and benefited from, for more than a century,” wrote Severin Borenstein, a business and public policy expert at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, in a blog post.

Others, however, saw the study as a turning point in the debate about apportioning responsibility for climate change. With traditional environmental issues, such as river pollution or toxic waste, it has always been possible to identify perpetrators who could be targeted for regulation or enforcement. But greenhouse gases are emitted everywhere, in every process that involves combustion. “For decades there’s been a persistent myth that everyone is responsible, and if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible,” says Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., who also serves on the board of a nonprofit that Heede co-founded. “Rick’s work for the first time identifies a discrete class of defendants.”

Heede’s carbon accounting is already opening a new chapter in climate change litigation and policy, helping equip plaintiffs who believe they have suffered damages from climate change to claim compensation. “Rick’s work really helps connect the dots,” says Marco Simons, general counsel of EarthRights International, a Washington, D.C.-based legal group that defends the rights of the poor. “He hasn’t sought out the spotlight, but I think his work is tremendously important.”

Counting Carbon

Heede tallies carbon obsessively. When we discussed my plans to fly out from Boston to Sausalito, California, where his houseboat is anchored, he did a quick calculation and told me that my share of the flights would add 716 kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere. “And if you’d driven an average car the trip would be 1.78 tons of CO2 [carbon dioxide]” he added, apparently riffing on his own compulsiveness. During my visit I noticed that when he boiled water to make noodles for lunch he put a frying pan on the pot instead of a lid—to preheat the pan so it would use a tiny bit less fuel to heat up the stir-fry. “It’s a practice of mine to figure out how I can minimize energy use.”

He was born in Norway into a long line of watchmakers, which may contribute to his own meticulousness. At 15, he and his parents immigrated to the United States. His father was a consulting engineer, but the younger Heede wasn’t keen on “fixing problems that should not have been created in the first place”—which, he admits, is exactly what he’s doing these days.

Heede has spent most of his life in Colorado, and he has the solid build and weathered face of someone who has spent lots of time in the mountains. He earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in geography at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and then joined forces with Amory Lovins, the soft-energy guru who co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute in Boulder. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president, and his administration moved to gut subsidies for alternative energy sources, claiming that they were not economically competitive. Heede tested that assertion, analyzing the federal budget to find the hidden subsidies to the coal and oil industries, even including the cost of treating workers who developed black lung disease from coal mining.

Contrary to Reagan administration claims, Heede showed that the vast bulk of federal energy subsidies went to conventional energy sources. He wrote a report, testified to Congress, and wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal. “I don’t recall getting any calls as a result,” he says. It was an early taste of working in obscurity.

In 2003, he left the Rocky Mountain Institute to form Climate Mitigation Services, a consulting firm specializing in surveying and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. One of his early clients was Aspen, Colorado, a rich and progressive ski town whose leaders wanted to act decisively to reduce emissions. They hired Heede to do a baseline greenhouse gas inventory with the broadest possible scope—including not only activities within the city, but the cars and airplanes that annually brought in hundreds of thousands of tourists … in short, Heede recalls, “everything that uses energy as a result of Aspen’s existence.”

The exercise raised fascinating questions, Heede says: “What is a community, and what is a boundary? There’s leakage everywhere: airplanes, trucks, cars, visitors. How do you quantify that stuff?”

Heede interviewed airport managers and checked their logs to find out which aircraft served the more than 178,000 annual passengers, calculating fuel consumption and emissions for each flight. Standing at the main bridge into Aspen for hours at a time, he categorized the cars that went by—sedans, SUVs, trucks, vans. Then, he used his records to estimate emissions from the 13,000 vehicles tabulated by an automated counter each day. In the end, he determined that in 2004, Aspen was responsible for more than 840,000 tons of carbon emissions—”roughly equivalent to a large, diesel-powered aircraft carrier running flank speed at all times.” This and subsequent reports enabled the city to reduce its emissions despite a growing population and economy.

The carbon ripples

Aspen was an early test of Heede’s ability to gather information and see beyond obvious boundaries—the invisible ripples from every project that affect the infinitely interconnected atmosphere. In the early 2000s, for example, an Australian firm proposed building a liquefied natural gas terminal off the California coast. It seemed a good way to transition to a low-carbon “bridge” fuel. But, Heede says, “They hadn’t done any work on life cycle emissions.” When he tallied all the direct and indirect emissions—from the gas extraction in Australia to distribution in California—he found that the project would have produced nearly a third more carbon than anticipated. His analysis helped persuade California officials to vote it down.

Later, he tackled targets that produce bigger but more diffuse ripples. Several U.S. cities and environmental groups were suing the Export-Import Bank of the United States and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, alleging the institutions were financing projects that would damage Earth’s climate. The plaintiffs retained Heede to analyze the carbon emissions resulting from the banks’ loans and investments around the world, from a gas project in Central Africa to a coal mine in Poland. He found that the projects were directly and indirectly emitting nearly 2 billion metric tons of CO2 per year—almost 8% of the world’s emissions. The plaintiffs won: The banks agreed to conduct environmental impact statements, create carbon-sensitive policies, and increase their financing of renewable energy projects.

Meanwhile, a new idea was coalescing in the environmental law community. For years, attorneys had litigated so-called environmental justice cases to redress the fact that poor people disproportionately suffer from pollution. By the early 2000s, it was becoming clear that the poor will also face the heaviest impacts of climate change. But how do you structure a liability case when the entire world takes part in the carbon economy? Can a Pacific Islander whose town has been flooded sue 7 billion people? Searching for more specific culprits, Peter Roderick, head of the Climate Justice Programme for Greenpeace International in London, commissioned Heede to study ExxonMobil and quantify total greenhouse emissions across its history.

Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty.

David Victor, University of California, San Diego

He would have to follow a tangled corporate path. Founded as Standard Oil by John D. Rockefeller in 1870, the company became one of the world’s largest multinationals until 1911, when the Supreme Court split it into several “baby Standards.” Decades later, two of the largest of those firms merged to form ExxonMobil. Heede tracked down production figures in annual reports scattered among university archives on two continents, supplemented by court documents, news reports, and academic and industry papers. Then he converted production volumes to CO2 and methane. He included direct emissions, for instance from the fuels used to run the company’s operations, and indirect emissions released by the combustion of its products.

After 15 months of research, Heede concluded that ExxonMobil and its precursors had directly or indirectly emitted 20.3 billion metric tons of CO2 and 199 million metric tons of methane. Friends of the Earth calculated that the quantity represented between 4.7% and 5.3% of humanity’s industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1882.

“I thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind,'” Roderick recalls. “But I knew it was just a small part of the big picture.”

The major league

Roderick commissioned Heede to look at the entire fossil fuel industry. To make the project manageable, they limited it to companies that produced at least 8 million tons of carbon per year, the so-called “carbon majors.” The research took 8 years. Money from the original grant ran out, and after the crash of 2008 Heede’s consulting business collapsed. He maxed out his credit card, borrowed against his Colorado house, and scraped by, enlisting graduate students in several countries to photocopy and send him papers, which he checked and double-checked with a watchmaker’s precision. He filled shelves with binders of information and spent thousands of hours entering it into spreadsheets, working alone, often until midnight. “I take pleasure in that kind of stuff,” Heede says. “I like to pay attention to detail.”

Sitting at dual monitors in the captain’s cabin of his houseboat, Heede takes me on a tour of his data set, a seemingly endless series of color-coded and cross-indexed spreadsheets. Each sheet lists hundreds of entries, with columns showing the year and total production volumes for products such as crude oil, natural gas, and varieties of coal. Clicking on a company’s name opens additional spreadsheets with the company’s year-by-year production, plus screenshots of its annual reports for verification. Color-coded flowcharts display the evolution of companies as they separated or merged. The flowcharts from Russia are particularly ornate, as they incorporate the transformation of companies after the fall of the Soviet Union. (Heede got production data for the Soviet companies from Central Intelligence Agency analyses and the International Energy Agency.) Detailed annotations reveal his methods and calculations. The structure of these charts, so layered and interlocking, seems almost medieval in its complexity, and Heede seems monklike in his devotion to compiling it.

The result, peer reviewed and published in Climatic Change, showed that just 90 companies contributed 63% of the greenhouse gases emitted globally between 1751 and 2010. Half of those emissions took place after 1988—the year James Hansen of NASA testified to Congress that there was no longer any doubt that global warming had begun.

The data “just blew me away,” says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard University and co-author of the book Merchants of Doubt, which compares the fossil fuel industry to the tobacco industry in its efforts to raise doubts about science. “Everyone talks about this as a problem since the Industrial Revolution, but I now think that’s incorrect,” she says. Heede has shown that the roots of the problem are more recent and easier to trace. In 2011, Oreskes joined Heede in creating the Climate Accountability Institute, a nonprofit devoted to quantifying the contribution of fossil fuel companies to climate change and investigating their alleged attempts to obfuscate the science.

Sharing the blame

Other people criticize the work as oversimplified and naïve. David Victor, a political scientist and energy policy specialist at UC San Diego and a co-author of the 2015 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, doesn’t question Heede’s numbers but says his approach is wrongheaded. “It’s part of a larger narrative of trying to create villains; to draw lines between producers as responsible for the problem and everyone else as victims. Frankly, we’re all the users and therefore we’re all guilty. To create a narrative that involves corporate guilt as opposed to problem-solving is not going to solve anything.”

Heede concedes that the responsibility is shared. “I as a consumer bear some responsibility for my own car, etcetera. But we’re living an illusion if we think we’re making choices, because the infrastructure pretty much makes those choices for us.” He focused on fossil fuel companies, he says, because unlike industries that produce greenhouse gases as a byproduct (such as the automobile industry, which has adhered to increasingly strict mileage standards), the mission of fossil fuel companies is to pull carbon out of the ground and put it into commerce.

His data, together with an emerging line of research that uses computer models to discern how likely it is that a given storm, flood, or heat wave was related to human-caused emissions, are now driving efforts to allocate responsibility for climate change. Last year, for instance, several nongovernmental organizations in the Philippines filed a petition with that nation’s Commission on Human Rights. It asks the “carbon majors” to take remedial actions on behalf of typhoon survivors in the islands, which suffer devastating storms that may have worsened as a result of climate change. “Heede’s report is one of the bedrock pieces of science and research that helped form our campaign,” says Kristin Casper, litigation counsel for Greenpeace’s Global Climate Justice and Liability Project in Toronto, Canada. In late July, the commission sent orders to 47 of the world’s largest investor-owned fossil fuel companies, asking them to respond to the human rights charges in the petition. Similar actions and lawsuits are proceeding in several other countries.

Now, Heede is extending his carbon accounting into the future, quantifying the potential carbon release from future fossil fuel exploration. Like the other recipients of Representative Smith’s subpoena, he has no intention of complying with what he calls a “campaign to intimidate us and stop scientific research.” At the same time, he confesses an admiration for the fossil fuel industry, which has made “fantastic efforts to find resources for the betterment of humanity,” often in the harshest environments. They’ve done such a good job that we haven’t paused to reflect on the unintended consequences, he says. “And now we have to cope with the result.”

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