New research puts clearer focus on the 20 companies responsible for one-third of global-warming emissionsNew research puts clearer focus on the 20 companies responsible for one-third of global-warming emissions. Photo credit: Lukas Schulze/Getty Images

By Karen Savage

More than one-third of all global carbon emissions since 1965 can be attributed to the 20 largest fossil fuel companies, according to newly released research.

Several companies facing climate liability suits in the U.S.—including Chevron, Exxon, BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Total—are among the most prolific carbon emitters, according to the data. The new research by Richard Heede, director of  the Climate Accountability Institute, was released Wednesday via The Guardian.

The data is arguably the most complete to date because it includes emissions released when the fossil fuel companies’ products are used by consumers and incorporates the most recent emissions data.

Emissions data reported by industry typically includes voluntary reporting of its operational emissions, but not emissions created by the use of its products.

“Insofar as operational emissions comprise roughly 12 percent of a company’s total, on average, and their produced carbon about 88 percent, and given that they have undisputed responsibility for producing and marketing those products to global consumers with the knowledge that their use will accelerate climate change, then these companies bear substantial responsibility for climate damages commensurate with their production and should be held accountable for such,” Heede said.

The research covers the period from 1965—the point at which researchers say companies and governments were fully aware of the catastrophic effect carbon emissions have on the global climate—through 2017, the latest year for which data is available.

It shows that during this period, the companies not only continued to operate as usual, but increased their production, marketing and sales of fossil fuels, a finding that Ann Carlson, co-director of the UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, said stands out. 

“What is most striking about the new data is that the period of time it covers—from 1965 to the present—is a period when fossil fuel companies knew that their products were contributing to climate change and yet not only did nothing to warn the public or to modify their production or products but actively sought to persuade the public that climate change wasn’t real,” said Carlson,who has provided pro-bono consulting for some of the municipalities that have filed climate liability suits.

“From a legal perspective, in many states that knowledge matters to liability,” Carlson added. “In California, for example, one court explained that ‘liability is premised on defendant’s promotion [of its product] for use knowing of the hazards it would cause.’ And when you combine the knowledge with precise data about what each of the 20 major companies contributed to climate change, it helps courts — and juries — see that any individual company “created or assisted in creating” a public nuisance.  And collectively, contributing more than a third of the emissions over almost 55 years is giant.”

The companies’ increase in production and emissions, Heede said, stood out among the findings.

“Their economic and political clout has been used to prolong carbon dependence and [they] elected to dispute the emerging climate science and lobby congress for inaction rather than help launch a national debate on how to address the problem of worsening climate changes and rising costs,” Heede said. 

“Fossil fuels have enormous benefits, but now it is time to abide the pathway to hold temperature response below 1.5 [degrees] Celsius,” Heede said. “The companies themselves should be fully aware of what that means for future production, new reserves, and shifting investments to reach net zero by mid-century. Any company not cognizant of what that means for their energy portfolio and their social license to operate needs to catch up quickly or see its capital expenditures wasted in stranded assets.” 

Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total—all top emitting investor-owned companies—have spent more than $1 billion in lobbying and misleading climate-related disinformation campaigns since the Paris Agreement was signed, according to research released earlier this year by InfluenceMap.

Heede’s latest report builds on his previous work, known as the Carbon Majors report, which found nearly 70 percent of all global emissions since 1751 are attributable to 103 companies and found that half of all carbon emissions by global fossil fuel and cement companies have been emitted since 1990.  

Compiled and released in 2017, the Carbon Majors report, along with other attribution studies have been widely cited in climate liability suits filed by municipalities across the nation and are considered strong evidence that the fossil fuel industry should be held accountable for climate change.

Exxon, Shell, Chevron, BP and Total did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the new research.

In a statement, Exxon told The Guardian that “news reports that claim we reached definitive conclusions about climate change decades before the world’s experts are simply not accurate.” Shell and Chevron both said they are taking steps to address climate change, but did not refute the research.

Total said “a distinction must be made between emissions resulting directly from our activities and those which arise from the use of the products which we make available to our customers and which we do not control.” It said it has never engaged in misinformation campaigns and “has integrated climate change concerns into the development of its strategy.”

The findings, however, lend more strength to the argument that fossil fuel companies have benefited at great cost to the planet. 

 “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,” Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann told The Guardian. “It is a great moral failing of our political system that we have allowed this to happen.”

Carlson said Heede’s findings add to a growing body of evidence making it harder for fossil fuel defendants to argue they should escape paying damages in liability cases. 

“Evidence matters in court—evidence of harm, evidence of causation, evidence of contribution, evidence of knowledge,” said Carlson.

“The pressure is building on them and I’d predict that eventually, a court is going to find them responsible for causing the harms that governments are already spending millions of dollars to alleviate.”

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