That meme that 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of emissions

If you pay attention to discussions about climate change, you’ve almost certainly seen a meme that 100 companies are responsible for over 70% of emissions, with the implication or outright statement that individual action to reduce climate impact is wholly ineffective, and that those 100 companies need to be stopped before anything can be done. I’m here to say that that’s not the full story.

Let’s look at where that meme comes from – the CDP Carbon Majors Report 2017.

In this report, CDP analyzes the greenhouse gas emissions of 100 fossil fuel companies from 1988 to 2015, and determined that they were “responsible” for 70.6% of “global industrial GHG” emissions. The emissions analyzed were Scope 1 (operational emissions – that is, direct GHG emissions made by these fossil fuel companies) and Scope 3 Category 11 (use of sold products), these scopes being defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol of the World Resources Institute.

Those emissions consisted of 58,328 megatonnes of CO2 equivalents in Scope 1, and 576,506 megatonnes of CO2 equivalents in Scope 3 Category 11. I’ll come back to this, but you might notice a problem here.

On one hand, I think they’re under-counting some emissions. Scope 2 emissions, which are indirect GHG emissions from electricity, steam, heat, or cooling, are completely left out. There’s significant electricity usage in production of fossil fuel products, which carries its own significant emissions… and that’s just entirely not counted. (Granted, there’s a risk of double-counting – if a fossil fuel company extracts coal, oil, or gas, refines any oil, sells it to a power plant, and then uses that power plant’s electricity to make more fossil fuel products, the emissions appear in both Scope 2 and in Scope 3 Category 11.) Additionally, Scope 3 includes a bunch of categories other than Category 11, which in the case of a fossil fuel company result in significant emissions that the fossil fuel company is really responsible for – Categories 3, 4, 5, and 9 are all categories that could contribute significant emissions, and that the fossil fuel companies could do things to improve emissions there.

And then we get to Scope 3 Category 11. “Use of sold products” is an interesting one when talking in terms of carbon budgeting, because it accounts all of the emissions from a product to the company that produced a product, ignoring the user using it. This analysis certainly has value in the right context – for products that use energy, Scope 3 Category 11 rewards efficiency improvements. However, I feel that it’s inappropriate to use Scope 3 Category 11 in the way that CDP is using it, for the fossil fuels themselves. About 90% of the emissions that CDP looked at were emitted by the end users of the fossil fuels, not the fossil fuel companies, and assigning all of those emissions to the company is… misleading.

I want to be clear here – I’m not trying to let these companies off of their responsibility. Their marketing, lobbying, attempts to bury climate change research, and attempts to bury battery technology, have been responsible for a portion of Scope 3 Category 11 emissions that could have been avoided. And, I’m aware that “carbon footprint” was a creation by BP’s PR department to distract from their responsibility. So, I get why someone would count Scope 3 Category 11 as the fossil fuel companies’ sole responsibility. But, there is a degree of personal responsibility for emissions as well, and CDP’s report arguably goes too far towards disclaiming that responsibility.

Individual action is never going to be sufficient to solve climate change, but it’s necessary, and that’s really my big problem with the headline from the press release about CDP’s report, which became the meme, that it implies not only that it’s insufficient, but also that it’s unnecessary. Additionally, governments need to take action both to encourage that individual action (through things like sustainable infrastructure, housing policy, and subsidies for emissions reducing technologies), and to appropriately penalize avoidable emissions whether from individuals or corporations (this could be things like carbon taxes or carbon rations). Of course, a problem here is that some of the fossil fuel companies listed in CDP’s report are state-owned, so there’s a conflict of interest in some cases…

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