“100 COMPANIES ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR 71% OF GLOBAL EMISSIONS.”– Tess Riley, for the Guardian, 2017
It’s a simple headline: short, stark, and to the point. And misleading.
It is in corporations’ best interest to frame climate change as a problem to be solved by the consumer and not the corporation. It’s a business tactic – if public opinion is that ordinary people are responsible for stopping climate change, pressure on corporations to be sustainable will lift. The most important thing to a company is their profit margin, and sustainability is expensive in the short term. Without public pressure or other incentives that will make sustainability a better choice for their profit margin, corporations have no reason to make significant changes.
The phrasing of this statistic originates from the headline of a Guardian article by Tess Riley and has become a catchphrase used online to push back against corporations sidestepping responsibility. People who use it as a talking point do so to spread the knowledge of corporations’ massive role in emissions and to shift the responsibility back onto those corporations. The article this line originates from is about a 2017 CDP Carbon Majors Database report and while the article itself is not a bad summary of that report, the headline is simplified to the point of being misleading and false. It omits details that demonstrate the role of both corporation and consumer in emissions production and undermine attempts to place the blame for climate change entirely on large companies. The back and forth in public discourse between corporations and those pushing for corporate accountability is a microcosm of the larger argument over who should bear the burden, the responsibility, and the blame for climate change.
The worst error in this headline is the phrase “global emissions.” This phrase is outright untrue; the CDP report is on emissions in the industrial sector. The report found that 100 fossil fuel producers are responsible for 71% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions, not total global greenhouse gas emissions. For some perspective, the industrial sector’s GHG emissions made up 23% of the United States’ total GHG emissions in 2019. There is a massive difference between 71% of global emissions and 71% of global industrial sector emissions.
Additionally, the report includes both scope 1 and scope 3 emissions in its calculations (direct and indirect emissions, respectively). That means that it counts the emissions from ExxonMobil’s fracking operations alongside the emissions from your car after you fill up your gas tank at an Exxon gas station. The headline does not include any mention of this and an average person would likely assume that the statistic only included direct emissions. On average, scope 3 emissions make up 90% of fossil fuel producers’ emissions. Knowing that 90% of that 71% (64% of total industrial sector emissions) are indirect emissions rather than direct emissions changes the lens through which this data is seen. Though the producer is ultimately responsible, there is consumer involvement.
It is nearly impossible to find an article about this report that does not simplify to the point of being misleading. “100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions” is a catchy headline, but it is a misleading summary of the data. Worse, it’s become accepted as fact. Finding accurate information requires actually reading the report because all the articles about it reference the original Guardian article and its misleading headline. Unfortunately, “100 fossil fuel producers are directly or indirectly responsible for 71% of cumulative industrial sector GHG emissions from 1988-2015” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
This statistic is spread to absolve individuals of responsibility for climate change by pushing the blame entirely onto corporations. It’s not entirely off-base in it’s goal. There is a tendency to put a disproportionate amount of responsibility and blame on the consumer and not enough on the producer. However, I’d argue that the use of this statistic, especially considering it’s not entirely accurate, goes too far in the other direction. Ultimately, producers and corporations are at fault for their direct and indirect emissions, but consumers still have a responsibility to make sustainable choices whenever possible. There is a fine line between framing climate change as something to be solved by ordinary people (absolving massive emitters and corporations), and pushing the scale so far the other direction that there is no incentive or encouragement for people to make sustainable choices because the responsibility falls wholly on corporations.
Where do we draw the line between the responsibility of the producer and the responsibility of the consumer? Who is at fault when a consumer makes an unsustainable choice and how do we encourage consumers to make sustainable choices?
We all have a responsibility to do what we are able and to make whatever sustainable choices are possible given our station in life. The fault of climate change falls on corporations and regulators that prioritize profit above all else and act without regard or care for the consequences in a way that, at many times, forces people into making decisions that harm the environment because there is no other viable or affordable alternative. And the burden of climate change falls on us all, but not equally.
Climate change is inexorably linked to issues of equity – those who will be affected the most can do the least. Sustainable alternatives tend to be expensive and inaccessible to low-income families and people in developing countries who will face the worst and most immediate consequences of climate change. Because of that inequity, it is inherently unethical and unfair to expect of people what they cannot do. People have a responsibility to do what they are able to. For those who have the opportunity to shop locally from farmers markets, they should. Those who can afford solar panels and have a roof to put them on should buy them. People who can afford electric cars should use them. We should fight for governments to incentivize clean energy and implement measures to discourage emissions.
One individual does not have a lot of power to effect change, but groups of people have massive amounts of power and influence. This is relevant in two ways here:
One person taking small steps to live sustainably will not make a difference on their own, but huge swaths of the population all taking those same small steps can make a real impact.
Climate change is a problem of a hard-to-comprehend scale, and it’s very difficult to stay engaged and motivated to live sustainably when it can be hard or inconvenient, but you are making a difference by carpooling or taking public transportation or eating less meat or any number of little things.
But as much of an impact as individual people can make and as important as that impact is, pushing countries and corporations to act sustainably is vital. Collective action is a powerful tool. One person on their own can’t force a company into making sustainable choices, but many people can. Companies will always act in the best interest of their bottom line; if their profit margin is threatened, they will act. This threat can come in the form of boycotts or governmental carbon taxes or any number of other sources, but the only way to get companies and corporations to shift to a sustainable business model is to threaten their profit, and groups of people have enough power to do so through boycotts and protests and political action
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Request for Feedback:
- What is a sustainable choice that you are already making in your life?
- What is something else – an extension of a choice you already make or something entirely new – that you can start doing?
- How can you make sustainable action a priority in your life?