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Assigning Corporate Blame for Global Warming Now Possible

[fa icon="calendar'] Nov 26, 2013 10:08:51 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Three recent headlines offer disturbing news to climate advocates. Together, they show climate changecatastrophic aggression from the fossil fuel producers.

First, Huffington Post reported on predictions from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that the U.S. will by bypass both Saudi Arabia and Russia in oil production by 2016 “at the latest,” a year earlier than it predicted in 2012. The U.S. will be world leader in oil production, subsuming climate to energy self-sufficiency.

The second astonishing headline covered the Climate Accountability Institute’s most recent study, as reported by Suzanne Goldenberg for The Guardian: “Just 90 companies caused two-thirds of man-made global warming emissions.” The list is topped by state-owned monopolies in China and Russia, with well over 8% each, and includes 50 fossil fuel investor-owned firms, including such widely recognized brands as Chevron, Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, British Coal Corp, Peabody Energy and BHP Billiton.

[csrhubwidget company="Chevron-Corp" size="650x100" hash="c9c0f7"]

The list’s top 20 produced nearly 30% of historical emissions. Chevron alone produced 3.5% of total global emissions and Exxon produced 3.2%; the U.K.’s BP and Shell are close behind. We’ve known the primary sources of carbon emissions for some time, but this study quantifies the relative damage each has done. It’s shocking all over again.

The third depressing headline is about the failure of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change which just concluded two weeks of meetings in Warsaw on Friday. As the New York Times reported, talks stalled because the developed countries refused to pay the $100 billion they’d promised to underdeveloped countries, which suffer the worst of climate change impacts.

But it’s not just developed countries that are responsible for emissions. As Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science at Harvard and co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute, explained in The Guardian article, "There are all kinds of countries that have produced a tremendous amount of historical emissions that we do not normally talk about. We do not normally talk about Mexico or Poland or Venezuela. So then it's not just rich v poor, it is also producers v consumers, and resource rich v resource poor ."

Not surprisingly, the entities most at fault for carbon emissions flaunt their disdain for the U.N.’s process. As evidence, the environmental NGO 350.org cites this fact: “The Polish government not only allowed corporate sponsors for the talks, but co-sponsored a major coal summit during the negotiations. It’s hard to see the U.N. gaining any traction around proposed financial consequences for countries.

But there are consequences for investor-owned companies. We know who those companies are, and now we know how much each is to blame.

Compare the problem of assigning blame and penalties for emissions to the 2008 financial crisis. At first, the task seemed impossible. It was too complex. The problem was systemic. Those who might be at fault were just too powerful. There was no way to parse the blame.

But with the force of public outrage and regulatory will and enough time to unravel specific causes, that’s changing.

Five years later, JP Morgan is the first to be fined, $13 billion for corrupt mortgage practices alone. And while many argue that financial penalties have not hurt the bank, it suspended stock buybacks last year and more could happen again to accommodate growing fines and penalties. And at least one analyst, Oppenheimer’s Charles Peabody, cut the bank’s 2013 earnings estimate by 12.5%.

So far, the only blame fossil fuel companies have suffered has been for oil spills such as Chevron’s currently contested $19 billion fine for polluting in Ecuador. But fossil fuel industry hubris towards global warming is pushing the same combination of public outrage and regulatory will as resulted in financial penalties for powerful banks. And now, thanks to the IEA report, we have the piece that took longest in punishing the banks, a way to quantitatively parse blame.

It’s a long game but it looks like the most recent combination of events —the U.S. becoming the world’s top oil producer, specific emissions numbers making it easier to assign blame, and failure at the U.N. — might just enable a remedy, at least in the U.S., forcing financial penalties on fossil fuel companies that more accurately reflect their true costs.

Picture courtesy of lightsinmotion via Flickr cc.

Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,400+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,400+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 290+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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Mapping the Road to a Climate Catastrophe Solution

[fa icon="calendar'] Nov 23, 2010 1:11:01 PM / by Cynthia Figge

What if the Chief Technology Officers of leading global technology companies turned their attention to solving climate change? That’s exactly what they did at the FiReGlobal conference in Seattle several weeks ago, which I attended to hear several of these technologists address “the most critical problem facing the planet – the climate catastrophe.” It was clear that these were scientists and not marketers sensitive to what consumers like to hear about climate change (no dire news please).

Several years ago Mark Anderson, CEO and founder of TheStrategicNewsService (SNS), challenged CTOs at the SNS FutureinReviewConference (FiRe), described by The Economist as “The best technology conference in the world,” to join in tackling the country’s most challenging design problems. Within the CTO Challenge framework, a group took on the problem of “Avoiding Climate Catastrophe.” Anderson was among the first to provide a platform for addressing the relationship of sustainability to technology and global trends, and as an Advisor to SNS FiRe, I’ve hosted the Sustainability conversation at FiRe for eight years.

Larry Smarr, Founding Director of the Calit2 Lab at UCSD/ UCSD/Irvine (the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology) moderated the CTO panel at FiReGlobal. Smarr is a mathematician, physicist, and computer scientist. He is not a “sustainability” advocate. So when Smarr speaks, I listen anew.

“We knew what we needed to know 30 years ago,” he said – the data and models are just more refined now. Smarr showed a chart of the atmospheric CO2 levels for the last 800,000 years, which did not exceed 300 ppm (carbon dioxide concentration). Today we are at 388 ppm. And the 2100 Post-Copenhagen Agreements-MIT Model predicts 700-800 ppm. Please see www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/download-the-report

In order to limit CO2 to 450 ppm “we have to peak four years from now,” Smarr says. “We have to de-carbonize over the next 50 years.” To rapidly reduce annual CO2 emissions, we must peak in 2015, and lower our emissions 50% by 2050, 80% by 2100.

Blue Scenario

How can we achieve this scenario? More clean energy adoption. A lot more. See the following chart for the contrast between our current level of clean energy adoption and the level of adoption needed to achieve the 2100 Ramanathan and Xu and International Energy Association (IEA) Blue Scenario (limiting CO2 to 450 ppm).

Average Annual Electricity Capacity additions for BLUE Map Scenario

The IEA, an agency of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, does the most detailed analysis of energy demand in the world. Their projections show we will double energy use by 2050. The question is, what fraction of this energy will be non-carbon?

There is already some movement toward de-carbonization in the corporate world. Smarr mentioned that a group of CEOs has formed the AmericanEnergyInnovationCouncil to convert the U.S. to non-carbon energy. The group includes Norman Augustine, Former CEO, Lockheed Martin, Ursula Burns, Chair and CEO, Xerox, John Doerr, Partner, Kleiner Perkins, Bill Gates, Chair, Microsoft, Chad Holiday, Chair, Bank of America, Jeff Immelt, Chair and CEO, GE, and Tim Solso, Chair and CEO, Cummins Engine.

The panel agreed that the incentive for consumers is information.

This has been a key impetus behind the founding of my new venture CSRHUB. Site visitors can see the Environmental performance of over 5,000 publicly traded companies worldwide, and CSRHUB subscribers can see these 5,000+ companies’ performance on Energy and Climate Change.

“Getting the world to low carbon is what really matters. Engagement is the most critical thing, not technology. I’m not a diplomat, I’m a scientist,” Smarr said. “In the 50s we used to litter and throw things out the window. We don’t do this anymore. Now we dump CO2 out the window. If the government sets the rules of the game, the private sector can respond.”

Our recent political stalemate makes it difficult to foresee a time when these government rules will prevail. In the meantime, let's take matters into our own hands and encourage companies to de-carbonize through our own purchasing power!

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