The Guardian today reveals the 20 fossil fuel companies whose relentless exploitation of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves can be directly linked to more than one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions in the modern era.
New data from world-renowned researchers reveals how this cohort of state-owned and multinational firms are driving the climate emergency that threatens the future of humanity, and details how they have continued to expand their operations despite being aware of the industry’s devastating impact on the planet.
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The analysis, by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in the US, the world’s leading authority on big oil’s role in the escalating climate emergency, evaluates what the global corporations have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions these fossil fuels are responsible for since 1965 – the point at which experts say the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by both industry leaders and politicians.
The top 20 companies on the list have contributed to 35% of all energy-related carbon dioxide and methane worldwide, totalling 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (GtCO2e) since 1965.
What is the polluters project
The Guardian has collaborated with leading scientists and NGOs to expose, with exclusive data, investigations and analysis, the fossil fuel companies that are perpetuating the climate crisis – some of which have accelerated their extraction of coal, oil and gas even as the devastating impact on the planet and humanity was becoming clear.
The investigation has involved more than 20 Guardian journalists working across the world for the past six months.
The project focuses on what the companies have extracted from the ground, and the subsequent emissions they are responsible for, since 1965. The analysis, undertaken by Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute, calculates how much carbon is emitted throughout the supply chain, from extraction to use by consumers. Heede said: “The fact that consumers combust the fuels to carbon dioxide, water, heat and pollutants does not absolve the fossil fuel companies from responsibility for knowingly perpetuating the carbon era and accelerating the climate crisis toward the existential threat it has now become.”
One aim of the project is to move the focus of debate from individual responsibilities to power structures – so our reporters also examined the financial and lobbying structures that let fossil fuel firms keep growing, and discovered which elected politicians were voting for change.
Another aim of the project is to press governments and corporations to close the gap between ambitious long-term promises and lacklustre short-term action. The UN says the coming decade is crucial if the world is to avoid the most catastrophic consequences of global heating. Reining in our dependence on fossil fuels and dramatically accelerating the transition to renewable energy has never been more urgent.
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Those identified range from investor-owned firms – household names such as Chevron, Exxon, BP and Shell – to state-owned companies including Saudi Aramco and Gazprom.
Chevron topped the list of the eight investor-owned corporations, followed closely by Exxon, BP and Shell. Together these four global businesses are behind more than 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965.
Why we need political action to tackle the oil, coal and gas companies – video explainer
Twelve of the top 20 companies are state-owned and together their extractions are responsible for 20% of total emissions in the same period. The leading state-owned polluter is Saudi Aramco, which has produced 4.38% of the global total on its own.
Michael Mann, one of the world’s leading climate scientists, said the findings shone a light on the role of fossil fuel companies and called on politicians at the forthcoming climate talks in Chile in December to take urgent measures to rein in their activities.
The top 20 companies have contributed to 480bn tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent since 1965
Gazprom 43.23. State owned
National Iranian Oil Co 35.66 State owned
Royal Dutch Shell 31.95
Coal India 23.12 State
Pemex 22.65 State
Petróleos de Venezuela 15.75 State
PetroChina 15.63 State
Peabody Energy 15.39
Abu Dhabi National Oil Co 13.84 State
Kuwait Petroleum Corp 13.48 State
Iraq National Oil Co 12.60 State
Total SA 12.35
Sonatrach 12.30 State
BHP Billiton 9.80
Petrobras 8.68 State
Source: Richard Heede, Climate Accountability Institute. Note: table includes emissions for the period 1965 to 2017 only
“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.”
The global polluters list uses company-reported annual production of oil, natural gas, and coal and then calculates how much of the carbon and methane in the produced fuels is emitted to the atmosphere throughout the supply chain, from extraction to end use.
It found that 90% of the emissions attributed to the top 20 climate culprits was from use of their products, such as petrol, jet fuel, natural gas, and thermal coal. One-tenth came from extracting, refining, and delivering the finished fuels.
The Guardian approached the 20 companies named in the polluters list. Seven of them replied. Some argued that they were not directly responsible for how the oil, gas or coal they extracted were used by consumers. Several disputed claims that the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known as far back as the late 1950s or that the industry collectively had worked to delay action.
Most explicitly said they accepted the climate science and some claimed to support the targets set out in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions and keep global temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
All pointed out efforts they were making to invest in renewable or low carbon energy sources and said fossil fuel companies had an important role to play in addressing the climate crisis. PetroChina said it was a separate company from its predecessor, China National Petroleum, so had no influence over, or responsibility for, its historical emissions. The companies’ replies can be read in full here.
The top 20 companies have contributed to 35% of all carbon dioxide and methane since 1965
The latest study builds on previous work by Heede and his team that has looked at the historical role of fossil fuel companies in the escalating climate crisis.
The impact of emissions from coal, oil and gas produced by fossil fuel companies has been huge. According to research published in 2017 by Peter Frumhoff at the Union of Concerned Scientists in the US and colleagues, CO2 and methane emissions from the 90 biggest industrial carbon producers were responsible for almost half the rise in global temperature and close to a third of the sea level rise between 1880 and 2010. The scientists said such work furthered the “consideration of [companies’] historical responsibilities for climate change”.
Heede said: “These companies and their products are substantially responsible for the climate emergency, have collectively delayed national and global action for decades, and can no longer hide behind the smokescreen that consumers are the responsible parties.
“Oil, gas, and coal executives derail progress and offer platitudes when their vast capital, technical expertise, and moral obligation should enable rather than thwart the shift to a low-carbon future.”
Heede said 1965 was chosen as the start point for this new data because recent research had revealed that by that stage the environmental impact of fossil fuels was known by industry leaders and politicians, particularly in the US.
In November 1965, the president, Lyndon Johnson, released a report authored by the Environmental Pollution Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, which set out the likely impact of continued fossil fuel production on global heating.
In the same year, the president of the American Petroleum Institute told its annual gathering: “One of the most important predictions of the [president’s report] is that carbon dioxide is being added to the Earth’s atmosphere by the burning of coal, oil and natural gas at such a rate by the year 2000 the heat balance will be so modified as possibly to cause marked changes in climate beyond local or even national efforts.”
The leading state-owned polluter, Saudi Aramco, is behind 4.38% of all carbon dioxide and methane since 1965
Heede added: “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 research aims to hold to account those companies most responsible for carbon emissions, and shift public and political debate away from a focus just on individual responsibility. It follows a warning from the UN in 2018 that the world has just 12 years to avoid the worst consequences of runaway global heating and restrict temperature rises to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.
An activist outside the Houses of Parliament in London, 2015. Photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty
The study shows that many of the worst offenders are investor-owned companies that are household names around the world and spend billions of pounds on lobbying governments and portraying themselves as environmentally responsible.
A study earlier this year found that the largest five stock-market-listed oil and gas companies spend nearly $200m each year lobbying to delay, control or block policies to tackle climate change.
Heede said the companies had a “significant moral, financial, and legal responsibility for the climate crisis, and a commensurate burden to help address the problem”.
He added: “Even though global consumers from individuals to corporations are the ultimate emitters of carbon dioxide, the Climate Accountability Institute focuses its work on the fossil fuel companies that, in our view, have their collective hand on the throttle and the tiller determining the rate of carbon emissions and the shift to non-carbon fuels.”
Rather than putting all their hopes in top-down democratic reforms that never come, progressives should themselves assume responsibility for building a truly democratic Europe. The 2019 elections could be the best chance to engage citizens in radical, participatory processes and end years of statis in the European institutions.
Waiting for European democratic reform is more frustrating than waiting for Godot. In the Beckett play, Godot is clearly never coming, and at least in the eternal wait we can meditate on the absurdity of human existence (and anyway the play will finish at some point). In the European Union, democratic reforms are coming at some point, but are seemingly endlessly deferred. When they do come, as a result of political compromise and national obstructionism, they are rarely what is needed. In the meantime, for lack of ambitious European democracy, the forces of reaction and nationalism grow so that on the one hand democratic reform becomes less likely, and on the other any such reform is less likely to be satisfactory or ambitious. A perfectly vicious circle.
It is time to stop waiting for others. Godot isn’t coming, and he is not called ‘Emmanuel’ or ‘Angela’. The 2019 European elections can be an important moment to mobilise citizens around the request for democratic change. But change will not come through the official ballot boxes alone. Whatever welcome progress may be made by having spitzenkandidaten or transnational lists or even genuine transnational parties will not be sufficient to drive through an ambitious democratic transformation. And so, in addition to fighting in the official elections and getting votes in the official ballot boxes, citizens need to set up their own ballot boxes, and even their own elections.
Turning back the technocratic tide
The intergovernmental and technocratic system of the EU increasingly frustrates any meaningful space for the expression of European citizenship. For as much as the Parliament has gained powers of co-decision, decision-making has moved to informal groups like the Eurogroup, intergovernmental agreements outside of the Community method (such as the Fiscal Compact or the scandalous EU-Turkey agreement), and into secretive ‘trialogue’ negotiations. The structure of the Parliament itself prevents the emergence of real transnational parties. By consequence, European citizens are deprived of political agency at precisely the time when they demand it and need it the most.
The question ‘what Europe is going to do?’ – about the banks, about Greece, about the euro, about the migrants, about Brexit, about Catalonia, about TTIP, about tax evasion… – has been discussed every day in almost every bar and café up and down the continent for nearly a decade of crisis. The idea that there is no European public sphere is no longer tenable. And it is not just discussion. Millions of Europeans have mobilised on the streets in protest or solidarity over the past years. The alleged apathy of citizens is a myth actively fostered by governing elites: it provides the ideological justification for keeping the EU a technocratic, intergovernmental, backroom affair. The distance of citizens from ‘formal Europe’ is fully understandable. They have no seat at the table and few avenues of meaningful political participation. But Europe has a meaning beyond the grey corridors of the European Council, and citizens have been reclaiming it.
It is now time to go the extra mile. People deprived of political agency have little to gain by crafting common positions in the hope that the ‘powers that be’ will take them up. In the 20th century, both the Indian Congress and the South African Congress realised that, rather than expect the imperial elites to change, they needed to construct bottom-up political power in order to transform a system that structurally deprived colonial subjects of citizenship rights. This required a movement that politically enfranchised its members through organised struggle in order to legally and socially enfranchise the majority that was being denied a voice. Today in Europe, most people are not subject to state violence – although migrants and Roma very often are – but like in colonial contexts, institutions increasingly impervious to democratic control need to be resisted and citizens need to politically enfranchise themselves as citizens of the European Union against repeated attempts to relegate them to mere subjects of undemocratic, intergovernmental governance.
Hacking the 2019 elections as an act of civil disobedience could be the way to open up fresh alternatives. We propose using the occasion to elect a Constituent Assembly for Europe.
A democratic strategy for a citizens’ Europe
This political and performative act would work as follows. All candidates in the official European parliamentary elections, as well as all citizens and any individual who declares an interest in the future of Europe, would be able to stand for the constituent assembly.
These candidates may organise themselves in transnational lists, and European parties would be asked to field candidates for election, so as to create an immediate link between the emerging assembly and the European Parliament. Taking part in the assembly process would represent a stupendous opportunity to show commitment to the idea of citizens-led democratic renewal. Civil society and social movements would be encouraged to propose their own lists. Ideas, programmes and values for a future European constitution would come forward. The communication campaign and the performative act of organising the election of such an assembly would provide a powerful push for getting the debate on European democratic reform on the agenda for the 2019 election campaign.
Preparing the ground for the election of a constituent assembly will take time and money. The whole exercise could be carried by NGOs interested in democratic renewal coming together before the election to organise it. A network of organisations could secure the necessary funding and human resources to start the process and see the election through. New transnational parties could also play an important role. Clearly, depending how large the elections get and how many places hold them, the process might get very expensive. But as a performative act there is no need for a complete coverage of the European territory, only for enough participation to create awareness around the idea and a sense of legitimacy.
So here is how it would work: on the day of the elections, in as many cities, towns and villages as possible across Europe, just outside the official polling stations, voters would be able to physically elect members of the constituent assembly. At the same time, online elections would be held. These elections, which should be accompanied by as much publicity as possible, would choose a group of, say, 200 elected representatives.
The constituent assembly itself would not have the legitimacy to decide on a new democratic constitution. ‘Elections’ self-organised citizens across Europe would not be formally adequate for that. Rather, the assembly would serve as a new civic power to inject ideas for democratic renewal into the European institutions, show that citizens are full of ideas and energy for such a project, and ensure that they cannot be ignored or side-lined in any future convention or treaty change. The assembly could be accompanied by a secretariat and would operate as a new kind of organisation: a cross between a citizen-led NGO and a democratically elected congress.
Following the elections, the assembly would meet as the elected representatives together with randomly selected citizens, representatives of non-European countries (because Europe’s actions impact the whole world and the whole world needs to have a say – and this is what real transnationalism should ultimately be about), representatives of municipalities and local authorities as well as interested NGOs and social movements to elaborate ideas for the values and content of a democratic European constitution. Online, a wiki-constitution would be discussed and collaboratively drafted. Indeed, the assembly would be a significant actor to initiate a wider process of citizens’ assemblies, through a cycle of meetings, discussions and debates organised in town-halls, schools, universities, cultural spaces and other venues throughout Europe, with coordination and exchange between these different cities and citizens.
The process could focus on three questions:
How to ensure democratic decision–making at a European level in which the interests of people throughout the continent, and the consequences of European decisions for other people affected, are taken into account and the common interest is guaranteed through a just, accountable and transparent process?
How to ensure the maximum possibilities for direct citizen involvement in political decision–making, as an expression of European citizenship and the best guarantee of common interest?
Which economic, political, and social issues are best approached at European level and what legislative competences should democratic transnational institutions have in these areas?
This process could run in parallel to ‘official’ processes at a European level, but would be more effective if it could fully infiltrate and initiate the formal processes and possibly lead to the participatory drafting of a new constitution to be approved by European citizens by transnational referendum. Beyond just a drafting of a new constitutional proposal, such process would itself be an experiment in transnational participation and a testament of the possibility of practicing European democracy in a new way. The recent process of participatory constitutional redrafting in Iceland is an important precedent in the development of empowering processes where citizens commonly decide their rules for living together. The scale of the task is enormous, but that is no reason not to start.
Doing nothing is not an option
Many of the changes proposed by such a participative process may require EU treaty change, and therefore unanimity between Member States. Treaty requirements should not prevent European citizens from initiating processes of change and adopting various strategies for enacting those changes. The important first step would be to establish transnational movements of citizens for a democratic infrastructure for Europe. The second step would be to adopt strategies, depending on legal procedures, for forcing institutional changes to be adopted. Leaving all initiative for treaty change to Member States, or worse, just some powerful Member States, is no longer an acceptable option. Doing so just reinforces the impression that the only options available are either to submit to the authority of the leaders of the most powerful countries or to abandon all European integration. However, a third alternative is available: citizens themselves proposing a genuine European democracy.
Etienne Balibar has recently powerfully argued that we need to be more nuanced in the way we talk about the EU and its history. It is important to distinguish between the philosophical prehistory of Europe as a utopian idea of perpetual peace, the political origins of the federalist project particularly in the anti-fascist resistance, and the historical beginnings of the supranational institutions in the Cold War. Only by reclaiming Europe in the first two senses, taking Europe into hands of the citizens as an act of resistance and invention, and through recovering a sense of utopian energy that can transform the apparently insolvable contradictions of political power, will projecting a positive European future become possible. This is no play, and citizens are not spectators in a theatre. Let’s stop waiting and let’s start acting.