With little time left to change the course of humanity, the largest contributors to global emissions will need to alter their ways in order for tangible change to occur.
There are less than two decades left to limit the damage causing the climate crisis according to an overwhelming majority of experts, yet the focus continues to stay on the behaviours of individuals (and their use of plastic straws and disposable coffee cups) instead of that of the proven biggest contributors – corporations.
A 2019 report published by the Carbon Disclosure Project revealed that a group of the world’s biggest companies have valued the climate risks to their business (representing around US$17 trillion in market capitalisation) at almost US$1 trillion. The full report covers 6,936 companies and analyses the risks and opportunities related to the climate breakdown reported by companies in 2018.
Nicolette Bartlett, the Director of Climate Change at CDP said, “Our analysis shows that there are a multitude of risks posed by climate change, including impaired assets, market changes and physical damages from climate impact, as well as tangible impacts to business bottom lines.”
The UN also released its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report this year, with recommendations including that corporate action can no longer be delayed if we want to see significant change for the future of the planet.
The Carbon Majors Report (2017) was reported on extensively in the media, as it was revealed that 100 companies had been the source of more than 70 per cent of the world’s global emissions since 1988. Pedro Faria is the technical director at environmental non-profit the CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute. Faria said the report “pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions,”.
The report was compiled from publicly available emissions figures and characteristically focuses on fossil fuel producers (such as oil companies) rather than large scale greenhouse gas emissions (many of which are caused by the burning of fossil fuels). The report uses 1988 as the year in which it begins taking its figures, as this is the year the IPCC was established.
Since then, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron have been among the highest emitting investor-owned companies. The report clearly states that the scale of total emissions associated with these companies has contributed significantly to the climate emergency crisis as a whole. If the same rate of fossil fuel extraction continues it is likely to have catastrophic consequences for life on earth by the end of the century – in only 80 years time.
To hold these companies to account, it is vital that the spread of news reaches the general public and inspires them to take action and call on the companies they buy from to move forward in their climate goals. In Ireland, researchers such as DCU lecturer David Robbin’s work has found that less than 1 per cent of news coverage in Ireland is covering the climate breakdown. He says this is following an international pattern. He has also said that depending on how different Ministers speak about the climate breakdown, and what their particular concerns are within the issue, frames how the topic is spoken about.
For example, he said “When Eamon Ryan was minister, the framing emphasised the economic opportunities of climate change, the technology and how businesses could benefit. When John Gormley was minister, the frame was more about individual responsibility, what people can do to tackle the issues.”
Coverage has, it seems, leaned away from holding accountable corporations which have been proven time and again as having the most negative influence on the worsening issue of the climate crisis.
Approximately 204 companies, including Apple, Facebook, Google and Ikea, have committed to 100 per cent renewable power under the RE100 initiative. RE100 is a global corporate leadership initiative led by The Climate Group in partnership with CDP, bringing together influential business with a goal to accelerate change towards zero carbon grids, at global scale. They work to increase corporate demand for renewable energy.
There are some oil and gas companies also investing in green energy, with even Shell in 2015 setting up a renewable and low-carbon division to invest in these areas. Group Chief Executive, Ben van Beurden, has however not begun moving towards a slowdown in the high oil and gas investment of the company, which is still driven by consumer demand.
Van Beurden said “The big challenge, both for society and for a company like Shell is how to provide much more energy, while at the same time significantly reducing carbon dioxide emissions.”
Speaking on behalf of Greenpeace UK, senior programme advisor Charlie Kronick said “The future of the oil industry has already been written: the choice is will its decline be managed, returning capital to shareholders to be reinvested in the genuine industries of the future, or will they hold on, hoping not to be the last one standing when the music stops?”
Overall, changing consumption patterns on a large scale may influence companies to change their own production patterns in line with a more sustainable consumer. While some have argued that at least those who can afford to make certain lifestyle changes have a responsibility to limit global warming, individuals are in fact statistically blameless when placed on a scale next to these companies.
Particularly those who live in poorer countries have contributed almost nothing (certainly nothing out of the ordinary) to the climate crisis, and have very little power to enact the structural changes that other countries are being asked of.
Governments hold the keys to enact legislation that could potentially regulate companies to remain within sustainable emission limits, and keep in line with environmental protection standards.
The Climate Accountability website states that their vision is for a world protected from the social, economic, and environmental damages of climate change. Richard Heede, co-founder and co-director of the Climate Accountability Institute has said, “They’re [these companies] are producing the fossil fuels we use… it’s the consumers that produce the carbon dioxide: they may be corporations, airlines, shipping lines, households, utilities.”
“They’re [these companies] obliged by capitalist theory to maximise short-term profits for their shareholders…they have the largest burden in addressing the problems they have helped to create, through their wealth and the decisions they have made to support the carbon economy over the course of their lives.” Heede added.
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