The 10 Biggest Polluters of the Industrial Age


An article published by Richard Heede in the journal Climatic Change tracks the biggest polluters of the industrial age. Heede’s research looked at CO2 and methane emissions from 1854 to 2010 and found the biggest polluters were 90 corporate and state-owned companies that produce fossil fuels and cement.

“The purpose of this analysis is to understand those historic emissions as a factual matter, to invite consideration of their possible relevance to public policy, and to lay the possible groundwork for apportioning responsibility for climate change to the entities that provided the hydrocarbon products to the global economy,” he wrote.

Good luck with that last part. 

While delegates from all over the world are gathered now in Poland arguing over which countries are most responsible for climate impacts, Heede’s work takes a different approach — it’s not countries so much as companies we should be examining.

The scope of the work is massive. Of the 90 companies, 56 are oil and gas producers, 37 are coal companies, and seven are cement producers. While they are based in 43 countries, “these entities extract resources from every oil, natural gas, and coal province in the world, and process the fuels into marketable products that are sold to consumers in every nation on Earth,” Heede writes. So, in a way, we all have a hand in this, too.

By his calculations these 90 companies are responsible for 914 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution, for a whopping total of 63 percent of C02 and methane (CH4) emissions since 1751. But it’s only recently that things have really started to heat up. “Of total industrial CO2 and CH4 emissions from 1751 to 2010, one-half has been emitted since 1984.” 

So, who are the worst offenders? Here’s the top 10 from his study:


The information is important, not just from an historical perspective but to help us figure out what to do now that the graph of global emissions looks like a steep climb up a never-ending hill.

“Many of the same companies are also sitting on substantial reserves of fossil fuel which—if they are burned—puts the world at even greater risk of dangerous climate change,” writes Suzanne Goldenberg for the Guardian. “Climate change experts said the data set was the most ambitious effort so far to hold individual carbon producers, rather than governments, to account.”

So far little has been done to hold anyone accountable and the battle over how much wealthier nations with high rates of emissions should compensate poorer countries, which have been bearing the brunt of climate change impacts, is a source of great contention. It may also be a global impasse. This week numerous groups walked out of talks partly because of a lack of progress on the issue of accountability. The biggest speed bump continues to be the fossil fuel industry and its collusion with numerous governments.

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