Can climate change be blamed on a handful of corporations?
A new study from the Colorado-based Climate Accountability Institute suggests that 90 companies are responsible for almost two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
The top 90 emitters include 50 investor-owned energy companies like BP, ExxonMobil and Shell, along with 31 state-owned companies and some nation-states themselves. 83 of the 90 are coal, oil and gas producers and the remaining seven are cement manufacturers.
The researchers argue that this group is responsible for the equivalent of 914 gigatons of carbon dioxide, explained the Guardian, which accounts for 63 percent of industrial carbon dioxide and methane emissions between 1751 and 2010. In fact, half of the greenhouse gas emissions analyzed in the the study were reportedly emitted in the past 25 years.
"This study is a crucial step forward in our understanding of the evolution of the climate crisis," former Vice President Al Gore told the Guardian. "Those who are historically responsible for polluting our atmosphere have a clear obligation to be part of the solution."
The Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg notes that the CAI study follows the release of the latest assessment report from the United Nation's climate change panel. The IPCC report endorses the notion that the world has a "carbon budget" of fossil fuel reserves that are safe to extract and burn before we're stuck with a rise in global average temperatures above an internationally agreed-upon limit of two degrees Celsius.
Climate Central's Andrew Freedman explained in October:
Based on studies published during the past several years, the IPCC found that in order to have at least a 66 percent chance of limiting global warming to, or below, 3.6°F above pre-industrial levels, no more than 1 trillion tonnes of carbon can be released into the atmosphere from the beginning of the industrial era through the end of this century.
The IPCC report estimates that we’ve already used 531 billion tonnes of that budget as of 2011 by burning fossil fuels for energy as well as by clearing forests for farming and myriad other uses. That means we’re on the wrong side of the carbon budget, with 469 billion tonnes left.
The New York Times' Andrew Revkin said he was glad the Climate Accountability Institute study will be published in the journal Climatic Change, but suggested the "spin is pretty absurd."
"It's kind of like saying that the hundreds of thousands of firearm murders in the history of the United States are the fault of Smith & Wesson and its ilk," he wrote in a Dot Earth blog post.
While the study may ignore the role of consumer demand and individuals' energy consumption in the problem, it does draw attention to the need to rethink our carbon-intensive energy system.
"It increases the accountability for fossil fuel burning," climate scientist Michael Mann told the Guardian. "You can't burn fossil fuels without the rest of the world knowing about it."
Check out the Guardian's interactive graphic to learn about these companies and their emissions in more detail.