Research published last month in the journal Climatic Change may provide an essential building block in proving corporate liability for current and future climate change damage.
Researcher Richard Heede found that 90 entities are responsible for an astounding 63% of global carbon emissions. Heede’s eight-year project discovered that Chevron, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and ConocoPhillips have contributed 12.5% of global carbon emissions.
The research is the first time historic sources of greenhouse gas emissions have been analysed to identify the most significant contributors, named in the research as the “Carbon Majors”.
Heede’s pioneering methodology focuses upon producers rather than emitters. “Producers” are those who extract and sell products (in this case, fossil fuels) whose normal use results in polluting greenhouse gas emissions.
Overall, 10% of emissions attributed to the oil, natural gas, and coal producers are emissions from company operations. About 90% are embodied in products marketed to consumers worldwide.
Identifying the big players
Heede’s research debunks the myth that everyone (and therefore no one) is responsible for climate change.
In fact, a few dozen entities are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. Historic or cumulative emissions drive climate change. Therefore, Heede’s analysis lays the groundwork for apportioning responsibility for climate change.
Interestingly, around half of the emissions have occurred over the past 25 years. To put this in perspective, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was agreed to in 1992, which is now 21 years ago.
Arguably, the Carbon Majors have accelerated their production and sale of products with the knowledge of their harmful effects on the global atmospheric commons.
Many of the Carbon Majors have even been accused of engaging in campaigns of disinformation concerning the science of climate change. The Carbon Majors spend billions to lobby politicians to ensure their continued operational existence and profits.
As climate litigation develops, as with tobacco litigation, there is a high likelihood that many of these Carbon Majors may have to pay compensation or be prevented from carrying on harmful activities. The extractive industry itself may suffer its own economic losses from planned projects that are halted or delayed.
Who pays for the damage?
The damages associated with climate change are increasing in seriousness. The science of attribution of weather and climate is slowly becoming more certain.
In 2009, research by the Global Humanitarian Forum found that climate change is causing 300,000 deaths a year. Economic losses due to climate change were estimated at $125 billion a year – more than worldwide humanitarian aid.
Early estimates of the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan place costs around US$15 billion ($16 billion). But whether this damage can be attributed to climate change is a difficult question in science and law.
Adaptation and mitigation were the initial streams of international climate activity. Now paying damages has been added as a third stream. The Warsaw International Loss and Damage Mechanism was established as a crucial step forward in these talks.
The mechanism seeks to address loss and damage – including damage from extreme and slow-onset events – to developing countries from climate change. The mechanism is designed to strengthen dialogue, coordination, coherence and synergies among all relevant stakeholders.
Carbon Majors will have to make a meaningful contribution to the loss and damage process. They need to provide resources and leadership, financial support, technology transfer and expertise.
The Carbon Majors should no longer influence government decision making from behind closed doors. Instead, they need to talk openly with the international community about their contribution to climate change. They need to be held accountable through the Loss and Damage Mechanism.
Climate litigation: The final frontier?
Climate litigation has been gaining increasing momentum around the world. Cases have been brought in Australia, the US, Europe, New Zealand and elsewhere.
One of the hurdles faced by applicants in climate cases is that the direct emissions associated with fossil fuel projects are arguably insignificant when viewed within the context of global emissions. But in a groundbreaking Australian case, the applicant Peter Gray was successful in arguing that the climate change impacts from the use of a product were to be taken into account in the assessment for the project.
An important message from Heede’s research is that the Carbon Majors are not only directly responsible for climate damage, but that their contribution can be measured, and they are capable of paying damages.
It is correct to say that society is dependent on their products, but each of our individual emissions are negligible. And it is difficult to comprehend how any fair and equitable agreement on climate change can take account of all of the differing economic and financial circumstances across the world.
But we now know that these 90 entities are the big players in town. They have the financial resources to respond, and it is time for them to take responsibility and do so.
Keely Boom is Research Associate, Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology, Sydney. She is the Executive Officer of the Climate Justice Programme Inc (www.climatejustice.org.au). She receives funding from a range of foundations and non-profit organisations, including Greenpeace International, the Ford Foundation and Friends of the Earth.