The statistic that one hundred companies are responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions has been widely circulated by journalists, politicians, activists, and the general public. The list of one hundred companies is dominated by fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron.
It is unsurprising that this statistic has spread so widely and rapidly: it is very easy to blame the looming climate crisis on a select group of companies. Corporations, CEOs, and economic elites are extremely unpopular in our current political environment. If one hundred rich CEOs are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, then regulating, sanctioning, or disinvesting from these corporations would logically provide a speedy solution to climate change.
Framing the climate crisis around the action of a few corporations allows us as individuals to avoid any culpability for climate change. For example, an article from the business magazine Fast Company states that “INDIVIDUALS ARE STATISTICALLY BLAMELESS” for climate change, predictably justifying its statement with the claim that “just one hundred companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions since 1988.”
Unfortunately, climate change is not that simple. As with many simplistic headlines, the notion that “one hundred corporations are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions” is grossly misleading.
The study behind these reports was conducted by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP), which states that “one hundred producers account for 71 percent of global industrial GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.” However, this study has an expanded definition of a company’s emissions. Journalists and the general public misunderstand the study’s findings. Traditionally, when a study or journalist reports on a company’s emissions, they report the company’s upstream emissions, which are the emissions released from the production process. However, the CDP study states that “90 percent of total company emissions [...] result from the downstream combustion of coal, oil, and gas for energy purposes” (emphasis added). Downstream emissions are the emissions caused by consumers using a product, after the product leaves the ownership of a company. As journalist Stuart Thomson explains, “in this study, ExxonMobil gets blamed for the emissions from the gas in your car.”
If a whopping 90 percent of emissions in the CDP study come from consumer use of these companies’ products, some quick mental math shows that the production-side actions of the companies are only responsible for about 7 percent of emissions, while consumer use of these companies’ products is to blame for about 63 percent of emissions.
These numbers show what should be painfully obvious: curbing carbon emissions and responding to climate change will require serious sacrifices by every one of us. As journalist Emily Atkin writes, “any truly meaningful climate plan is also going to drastically reduce industrial meat production, expand public transportation, end our reliance on cars, and change the way cities are planned and built.” For society to effectively combat climate change, every facet of our lives would have to change significantly. Many climate proposals like the Green New Deal also propose sizable tax increases.
Some environmentalists like Lester Brown have compared the mass mobilization required to fight climate change to the national effort by Americans during World War II to ration food and gas.
Unfortunately, if we fail to accept our own responsibility—and instead lay the blame on faceless corporations—it will be more difficult to justify such seemingly draconian measures to limit carbon emissions. Furthermore, if individuals are unaware of their own responsibility for climate change, they will be less likely to adopt green changes within their own lives.
There many things that individuals can do to tackle climate change. For example, a study from the Institute for Transportation and Development found that “Bicycling could help cut carbon emissions from urban transportation 11 percent.” Transitioning away from cars would require a combination of individual consumer decisions, city planning changes, private-sector innovation, and local and federal government policy.
Another rarely discussed issue is our rapidly growing meat consumption. Any government regulation of personal habits like meat consumption would most likely be a political non-starter; thus, the onus is consumers to change their individual decision making. The Guardian reports that “keeping meat eating to levels recommended by health authorities would not only lower emissions but also reduce heart disease and cancer.”
None of this is to say that governmental policy will not play a crucial role in this transition. Fossil fuel subsidies need to go, and the government must implement strict regulations on the oil and natural gas industries. The government should immediately subsidize and encourage the production of clean alternatives such as solar, wind, and nuclear energy—just as the government did with weapons and vehicles during World War II. But, most importantly, Americans should realize that it is impossible to confront climate change without changing some of the most fundamental parts of our current way of life; it isn’t as simple as regulating one hundred CEOs.
This image is licensed for redistribution under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Andreas Praefcke and can be found here.