In The Wicked Trinity – Part I, I have explained why climate change is a wicked problem and introduced in particular a trinity which I argue lies at the heart of the wickedness. In The Wicked Trinity – Part II I have introduced one part of the trinity, which is the Paris Agreement target to remain below the 2oC global warming threshold. In this blogpost I introduce the second element of the trinity. The so called “carbon majors”.

Richard Heede in his study published in the journal Climatic Change has identified these “carbon majors”. Carbon majors are the biggest contributors to the anthropogenic GHG emissions. Their cumulative emissions from 1854 to 2010 was 63% of the cumulative total global anthropogenic GHG emissions between 1751 and 2010. In this blog post I produce a summary of Richard Heede’s study on the “carbon majors” to present their key characteristics. The original article in full can be accessed here.

Tracing back to 1854 Richard Heede has identified 90 corporations belonging to the fossil fuel and the cement producing sectors as “carbon majors”. 50 of them are owned by private investors and 40 of them are state owned. Presently 85 out of these 90 corporations are operational. Among them 54 have headquarters in the so called developed countries and 31 have their headquarters in the so called developing countries. From 1854 to 2010 a total of 914.25 GtCO2 equivalent [1] [2] [3] of GHG emissions can be traced back to these 90 corporations. In comparison, the total global anthropogenic GHG emissions from 1751 to 2010 was 1450.33 GtCO2 equivalent. Fig 1 below presents these figures.

WTIII -Fig 1

Figure 1:  Carbon Major’s contribution to the to the total global anthropogenic GHG emissions

Oil and gas combustion was the major source of “carbon major’s” emissions followed by coal combustion.  Fig 2 below presents the source wise break-up of the total cumulative GHG emissions by the carbon majors.

WT-III - Fig 2

Figure 2: Source wise breakup of “Carbon Major’s” total cumulative emissions in percentages

The list of 20 largest emitters among the “carbon majors” is provided in the table 1 below. Together they contributed close to the 50% of the total cumulative emissions by the “carbon majors”.

Table 1: Top 20 GHG emitters among the “Carbon Majors”

Cumulative GHG emissions GtCO2 e (1854-2010) Percent of the Carbon Majors
1. Chevron, USA 51.096 5.589%
2. ExxonMobil, USA 46.672 5.105%
3. Saudi Aramco, Saudi Arabia 46.033 5.035%
4. BP, United Kingdom 35.837 3.920%
5. Gazprom, Russian Federation 32.136 3.515%
6. Royal Dutch/Shell, Netherlands 30.751 3.364%
7. National Iranian Oil Company 29.084 3.181%
8. Pemex, Mexico 20.025 2.190%
9. ConocoPhillips, USA 16.866 1.845%
10. Petroleos de Venezuela 16.157 1.767%
11. Coal India 15.493 1.695%
12. Peabody Energy, USA 12.432 1.360%
13. Total, France 11.911 1.303%
14. PetroChina, China 10.564 1.155%
15. Kuwait Petroleum Corp. 10.503 1.149%
16. Abu Dhabi NOC, UAE 9.672 1.058%
17. Sonatrach, Algeria 9.263 1.013%
18. Consol Energy, Inc., USA 9.096 0.995%
19. BHP-Billiton, Australia 7.606 0.832%
20. Anglo American, United Kingdom 7.242 0.792%
Total 428.439 46.862%


The above data clearly points to the fact that the “carbon majors” played the most important role in influencing the historical GHG emissions trajectory. The 85 existing “carbon majors” continue to own the majority of the today’s proven fossil fuel reserves. In future the success of meeting the 2oC global warming target will be contingent on restricting them from freely exploiting their proven fossil fuel reserves. However what are the moral and economic consequences of such a policy approach? This brings us to the third element of the wicked trinity. The consequences of imposing the risk to the “carbon majors” of being stranded with their fossil fuel assets. My next blog post of this series will explore this aspect in more detail.

To be continued…

Photo: A Pile of Coal by oatsy40: CC BY 2.0


[1] Definition of CO2 equivalent from OECD Glossary of Statistical Terms  – “Carbon dioxide equivalent is a measure used to compare the emissions from various greenhouse gases based upon their global warming potential. For example, the global warming potential for methane over 100 years is 21. This means that emissions of one million metric tons of methane is equivalent to emissions of 21 million metric tons of carbon dioxide.”

[2] 1 Gt = 10^9 tonnes

[3] For a visualisation of what 1 tonne of CO2 means refer to this video by the CarbonVisuals.