Over the course of international climate change conferences since the Kyoto Accords were established in 1997, a pivotal debate has been whether developed countries or developing countries should shoulder the primary responsibility for reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
The U.S. and other major industrialized countries have repeatedly rejected the idea put forth by developing countries, including India and China, that developed countries should be held accountable for their history of carbon emissions. While clearly in the interest of the people of the world to put regulations in place to protect the planet, Wall Street corporations continue to block any concrete actions that would limit profits.
A recent study published in the journal Climate Change, however, puts a new spin on this debate that substantially supports the position held by developing nations. The Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado suggests that blame for the climate crisis can be linked to just 90 companies, collectively responsible for over 63 percent of GHG emissions going back to the beginning of the industrial age in the mid-18th century.
Half of these emissions were produced over the last 25 years, after it was generally accepted by scientists that climate change resulted from burning coal and oil. The research found that roughly 30 percent of GHG emissions were produced by just 20 of these companies.
Topping the list are Chevron, Exxon, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, plus coal producers that include British Coal Corp., Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton. Richard Heede, author of the study, noted that while “there are thousands of oil, gas and coal producers in the world … the decision makers, the CEOs … if you narrow it down to just one person, could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two.” (The Guardian, Nov. 20)
Historic GHG emissions
The eight-year study involved extensive research into carbon emissions over the period from 1751 to 2010. It traces the history of major CO2 emitters, including global corporations with headquarters in 43 different countries. It concluded that Annex I, or developed nations, have historically produced most of the GHG and should be held responsible for taking the first steps toward reducing emissions.
The study found that even though substantial GHG emissions have resulted from fossil fuel use in developing countries, the wealth generated from production of these fuels goes primarily to global investors.
The study called for shifting perspective from nation-states to corporations. It further noted that many of the 90 companies have both the financial resources and the technical capacity to “develop and contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation.” (Climate Change, Oct. 14)
Yet the overriding incentive to profit from producing and marketing the massive energy reserves they control has most of these corporations actively opposing efforts to stem global warming. Many of the top companies on the list have funded the climate change denial movement that has further delayed action to limit GHG emissions.
One oversight of the study was its failure to target emissions from use of fossil fuels by the U.S. military. Not only is the Pentagon the single largest consumer of oil in the world, but it has been testing the idea of using weather modification as a weapon for years. Reliance on a permanent war economy to benefit the profit-driven military-industrial complex clearly adds to global warming.
While the study includes data on natural gas and methane (CH4) emissions, there is no specific analysis of the impact of increased natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing (fracking). However, other studies have concluded that the energy industry’s promotion of natural gas as the “clean energy” to replace coal and oil has only exacerbated the problem.
Natural gas is mostly methane, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded recently was “34 times stronger a heat-trapping gas than CO2 over a 100-year time scale — and 86 times more potent over a 20-year time frame.” (thinkprogress.org, Nov. 25) Many of the companies cited in the Colorado study sit on substantial reserves of natural gas and oil.
The study’s focus on specific corporations also avoids the deeper understanding that what causes corporate CEOs to ignore the danger of global warming in favor of global competition for markets is the profit-driven system of capitalism. It is not enough to simply bring “social and legal pressure” on individual energy companies, as Heede suggests. The entire capitalist system must be exposed and replaced. n