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Climate Change Tracker: Who’s to blame?

Just 20 energy firms from around the world have contributed 35% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the past five decades. Will they be held accountable for Climate Change?

Supertankers loading oil off the coast of Dahran in Saudi Arabia.
Supertankers loading oil off the coast of Dahran in Saudi Arabia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Well, I am serious about the headline. Who do we blame for all those gunky greenhouse gases clogging up the atmosphere and causing the unmitigated disaster called climate change? A lot of ink has been spilled over this, and in this column we are going to spill some more. Some say, “it’s the people, stupid!" It’s you and me, and all the billions of human beings on this planet, we are responsible. How? By not turning off water taps. And? And taking flights. What else? Driving cars. Is that it? No, there’s no end to it, because you are a consumer.

Well, individual “choice" for a life with a strong carbon footprint is certainly a factor that adds up, but there’s a reason why I put the word in quotes. What choice do we really have, when the entire political economy of countries—from town planning to energy systems—looks at people merely as consumers of goods? So you will find many sanctimonious calls to citizens to check their water usage. Sure, that would help. But perhaps the denuding of groundwater by private companies to produce aerated drinks might help more? But let’s look at the larger picture.

In October, The Guardian published an eye-opening report by Rishard Heede, director of the US-based Climate Accountability Institute. It was an update of Heede’s ongoing project, the Carbon Majors, which looks at private and state-owned fossil fuel companies around the world and their share of CO2 and methane emissions. Heede’s number crunching revealed that between 1965-2017, the top 20 energy firms emitted 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (Gt CO2e), that is, 35% of all emissions in that period. Of this amount, 90% was emitted through the use of their products, like coal, petrol, natural gas. The remaining 10% was emitted in the extraction, refining and delivery of the products.

What’s more, the top 20 polluting firms are fairly evenly distributed between public and private entities. Twelve of these are state-owned, including Saudi Aramco (Saudi Arabia, 59.26 billion, No.1), Gazprom (Russia, 43.23 billion, No.3), National Iranian Oil Co (Iran, 35.66 billion, No.5) and Coal India Ltd (India, 23.12 billion, No.8). The other eight are private firms, including Chevron Corporation (43.35 billion, No.2), ExxonMobil (41.90 billion, No.4), BP (34.02 billion, No.6) and Royal Dutch Shell (31.95 billion, No.7).

There is much hand-wringing and pointing of fingers at “consumers" who used the products of these firms. But the question really is, would we have done this if the companies had come clean about what consuming their products would entail? It’s not like they didn’t know. The Stanford Research Institute presented a report to the apex US oil industry body American Petroleum Institute in 1968, warning against the CO2 released from burning fossil fuels. “Significant temperature changes are almost certain to occur by the year 2000 and these could bring about climatic change," it said. It even predicted a drastic increase in global temperatures, the melting of ice caps and rising sea levels. ExxonMobil was warned by its own in-house climate expert of fossil fuels and climate change in 1981. And yet, until the Nasa scientist James Hansen’s testimony in the US Congress in 1988 about the dangers of climate change, “consumers" were kept in the dark. Where's the choice?

Should we say "Climate Change" or "Climate Emergency"? Next week in Climate Change Tracker, we discuss why words matter. Follow the series with #MintClimateTracker

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