News Analysis

Just 20 firms are the biggest corporate polluters on the planet

by Stephen Conmy on Sep 28, 2021


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If you knew you were doing something wrong, something that could affect all living things on the planet, would you do it anyway? Most likely not. A moral sense guides you. It appears, however, that there are those in positions of power who wilfully continue to pollute the environment for profit. They are the biggest corporate polluters. The question is, will the leaders of these firms be held accountable?

Researchers have found that just 20 different state-owned and multinational companies drive the climate emergency that threatens humanity. Although these firms are conscious of their industry’s devastating impact on the planet, they have continued to expand their operations.

The research by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US shows that just 20 companies have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965.

“The great tragedy of the climate crisis is that seven and a half billion people must pay the price – in the form of a degraded planet – so that a couple of dozen polluting interests can continue to make record profits. It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen,” says Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists.

The top 20 global polluters are all in the fossil fuel industry, and they are:

  • Saudi Aramco 59.26 billion tonnes (of carbon dioxide poured into the atmosphere since 1965)
  • Chevron 43.35 billion tonnes
  • Gazprom 43.23 billion tonnes
  • ExxonMobil 41.90 billion tonnes
  • National Iranian Oil Co 35.66 billion tonnes
  • BP 34.02 billion tonnes
  • Royal Dutch Shell 31.95 billion tonnes
  • Coal India 23.12 billion tonnes
  • Pemex 22.65 billion tonnes
  • Petróleos de Venezuela 15.75 billion tonnes
  • PetroChina 15.63 billion tonnes
  • Peabody Energy 15.39 billion tonnes
  • ConocoPhillips 15.23 billion tonnes
  • Abu Dhabi National Oil Co 13.84 billion tonnes
  • Kuwait Petroleum Corp 13.48 billion tonnes
  • Iraq National Oil Co 12.60 billion tonnes
  • Total SA 12.35 billion tonnes
  • Sonatrach 12.30 billion tonnes
  • BHP Billiton 9.80 billion tonnes
  • Petrobras 8.68 billion tonnes

Will these businesses be held to account?

Perhaps not by today’s grey-haired investors and governments. However, Generation Z is now entering the workforce and will be the leading legislators, investors, and consumers in the next decade or so. How will they look back? In anger, most likely.

Organisations like the Climate Accountability Institute in the US want to hold big polluters to account but also “leverage accountability by carbon producers into using their skills, capital, and resources to aid rather than oppose the transition to a low-carbon or zero-carbon energy future”.

What do the biggest corporate polluters say about their activities?

They say it’s not their fault; they simply serve a human demand for oil, coal and gas.

Don’t forget, they also spend millions on lobbying governments and investors every year, showing off their ‘green credentials’.

The fact that they put money into denial rather than investing in renewable energy may also come back to haunt them.

Actively lying and lobbying to protect your polluting ways won’t go down well with future generations. It is also appalling governance.

Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute says leading companies and industry associations were “aware of, or wilfully ignored, the threat of climate change from continued use of their products since the late 1950s”.

The public and political debate should focus less on individual responsibility and more on holding companies, most responsible for carbon emissions, accountable, says Heede.

According to the UN, we now have just ten years to prevent the worst effects of global warming and limit temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Are people and investment funds still supporting the biggest corporate polluters?

Yes. The problem is the biggest corporate polluters are very profitable in money terms, so they still attract a lot of investment which helps them expand their operations.

There has been some investor backlash against the polluters and the environmental vandals. Some significant investment funds have said they will no longer support funds that have ‘dirty firms’ on their books.

However, it’s the future backlash that may come back to haunt them in more intensive ways.

Many of the top polluters spend millions each year lobbying governments and presenting themselves as eco-friendly.

A recent study revealed that the five most significant oil and gas companies spent $200 million lobbying to delay, control or block policies addressing climate change.

Heede said the companies have “significant moral, financial, and legal obligations and burdens related to the climate crisis”.

“The fossil fuel companies have their collective hand on the throttle and the tiller determining the rate of carbon emissions and the shift to non-carbon fuels,” says Heede.

For more on this research, go here and to The Guardian.

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