A new report by CDP has found that over 70% of global industrial greenhouse gases emitted since 1988 can be traced to just 100 fossil fuel producers. Dr. Paul Griffin outlines actions these oil and gas majors and their investors should take in order to change the trajectory towards a low carbon economy.
Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) are the single largest source of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. When they are combusted, carbon reacts with the oxygen in air and carbon dioxide is released. This is the gas spewing from your car’s tailpipe or billowing from the chimney stacks of power stations. We can see where these emissions come from, but if emissions result from fossil fuel combustion, where do fossil fuels come from?
Fossil fuels come from the ground and are extracted by fossil fuel extraction companies. By attributing fossil fuel emissions to the producers of fossil fuels, instead of the consumers of fossil fuels, the Carbon Majors Database enables us to see from whom these emissions are ultimately derived. This producer-side perspective on climate accountability is the novelty of the Carbon Majors project, and the most empowering aspect of this view is that there are far fewer producers than consumers.
In 1988, the human influence on climate change was officially recognized through the establishment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). From this point, fossil fuel companies knew or should have known about the destabilizing effects of their products, yet the fossil fuel industry expanded prodigiously. After 1988, the contribution of fossil fuels to global warming more than doubled: 833 GtCO2e in the 28 years from 1988 to 2015, compared with 820 GtCO2e in the 237 years between 1988 and the birth of the industrial revolution. Since 1988, the operations and products of the Database’s 100 fossil fuel producers resulted in the emission of 635 GtCO2e, which was 71% of all industrial greenhouse gases emitted worldwide. Incorporating the full extent of the Database, these 100 entities account for more than half of global industrial greenhouse gases emitted since start of the industrial revolution.
The distribution of emissions from these producers is also very concentrated. Since 1988, just 25 fossil fuel producers are the source of over half (51%) of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions. The highest impact investor-owned companies include ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Peabody, Total, and BHP Billiton. The largest state-owned producers are Saudi Aramco, Gazprom, National Iranian Oil, Coal India, Pemex, CNPC, and Chinese Coal, of which Shenhua Group and China National Coal Group are key players. Nearly a third (32%) of emissions over the period are the legacy of public investor-owned companies, with the remainder coming from private investment (9%), and state-owned producers (59%).
What are the implications of these findings? Firstly, the growth seen over the past three decades must end. If the trend in fossil fuel extraction continues over the next 28 years as it has over the last 28, then global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4ºC by the end of the century – likely to entail substantial species extinction and large food scarcity risks worldwide.
Secondly, there is a critical role for investors and their companies to take the lead on the global energy transition. Public investors in fossil fuel companies carry influence over a fifth of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That puts a significant responsibility on those investors to engage with carbon majors and urges them to disclose climate risk in line with the Financial Stability Board’s (FSB) Task Force for Climate-related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations, as well as setting ambitious emission reduction targets through the Science Based Targets (SBT) initiative to ensure they are aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
In the report, the Database is extended to 2100 and illustrates the required scale of transition away from fossil fuels. A key element to the TCFD is for companies to assess the physical and transition risks imposed by climate change. By developing scenarios and transition plans, fossil fuel companies are better positioned to navigate their way through a transforming industry. A transition plan begins with the setting of an emissions target. In order to reach their science based targets, fossil fuel companies can reduce operational emissions, shift to lighter fossil fuels, engage in the deployment of Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage (CCUS) and other carbon-offset options, and diversify their portfolio of energy products to encompass renewables. These measures all contribute to a decoupling of growth and emissions, which will maximize the growth achievable by a company in a carbon constrained world.
This 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 the important role of the carbon majors and the investors who own them.
Dr Paul Griffin is an Energy Data Analyst at CDP.
CDP focuses investors, companies and cities on taking urgent action to build a truly sustainable economy by measuring and understanding their environmental impact. Please visit www.cdp.net for more information. The Carbon Majors Database Report is the most comprehensive database of historic company greenhouse gas emissions ever compiled and can be accessed here.
 Measured from 1751.
 Industrial greenhouse gas emissions include all anthropogenic greenhouse gasses except carbon dioxide relating to land-use change, and methane deriving from farming, landfills, and other non-industrial sources. Industrial greenhouse gas emissions account for about 75% of total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.
 Compared with the IEA 6DS scenario projecting nearly a 4ºC rise by the end of the century, and 5.5ºC in the long-term.
 Based on the IPCC (2014) AR5 WGII ‘Impacts, Adaption, and Vulnerability’ report’s assessment on some of the impacts associated with a 4ºC rise.