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The Guardian: Hall of shame: Which companies are the worst polluters?

BP Oil Refinery Complex: The Guardian

BP oil refinery complex. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Sally Uren 
Monday November 5 2007

Six of the 10 largest companies on the globe come from one of the oldest and historically most carbon-intensive sectors in business: oil and gas. Between them, the oil majors shown in our table account for 91% of the total emissions of CO2. That says a lot about the scale of the challenge we face in moving to a low-carbon world.

ExxonMobil takes the dubious prize for the highest emissions, responsible for 146m tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, equivalent to the annual emissions of the United Arab Emirates. ExxonMobil is also the worst offender when it comes to total emissions relative to sales, a staggering 436 tonnes per $1m. By contrast, BP is nearly twice as efficient in its operations, emitting 261 tonnes of carbon dioxide per $1m in sales.

Three of the remaining top 10 companies come from the car-manufacturing sector. General Motors has the highest emissions at 12m tonnes per annum. DaimlerChrysler and Toyota both emit a modest 7m tonnes each. In relative terms DaimlerChrysler is slightly more efficient, emitting 35 tonnes of carbon dioxide per $1m of sales, compared with 36 for Toyota. Could this be a sign that others in the car-manufacturing sector are following Toyota’s well-documented lead in tackling climate change and sustainability?

Between them, the top 10 companies emit the same amount of carbon dioxide per annum as the entire UK.

This is a significant amount of carbon dioxide, and in the case of four of the top 10 companies — Exxon, Chevron, Toyota and ConocoPhilips — individual emissions are heading in the wrong direction, with overall greenhouse gas emissions increasing between 2005 and 2006. This is at a time when scientists, politicians and economists have reached consensus that we need a serious reduction in global carbon emissions, and we need it now.

As ever, these figures come with the usual health warnings. First, it is reported voluntarily, which makes it possible for different companies to measure and report their carbon dioxide emissions in different ways. Second, the data only includes carbon dioxide emissions up to the point of sale. None of the emissions resulting from consuming oil and gas, driving cars or using any of Wal-Mart’s or Asda’s thousands of product lines are included.

Quibbles around the quality of data aside, it would seem that half of our top 10 companies are definitely laggards when it comes to best practice in carbon management. Five of the 10 — Exxon, DaimlerChrysler, Chevron, Total and ConocoPhilips — do not appear to have published targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If a business is serious about tackling climate change, then public commitments to absolute carbon reductions — not relative reductions per unit of production/sales — are needed.

More effort required

For those companies with published targets, the scale of ambition is varied. General Motors has set itself a target of an 8% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010, with Toyota taking a lead with a creditable target of a 20% reduction in the same period. Wal-Mart is also committed to a 20% reduction, but over the next seven years. This level of aspiration is absolutely what is required in the short term, but by 2050 we need to see cuts in the order of 60%, ideally 90%, if we are to stand a chance of stabilising our climate.

We also need to see significant investment in sustainable technologies. Business-as-usual investment patterns will not deliver a low-carbon, sustainable economy. It is therefore disappointing to see that half of our top 10 don’t publish separate figures for investment in new, sustainable technologies.

Of those noble five companies publicly disclosing investment in sustainable technologies, again, we see Toyota taking a lead, with a laudable 13.8% of total annual capital investment being spent on sustainable options such as the use of renewable fuels and “eco-drive” technologies. By contrast, it is questionable whether Shell’s 1.1% investment is up to the scale of the challenge. With 6.8% of annual capital investment allocated to sustainable technologies such as alternative energy, BP leads the oil majors in its investment in the future.

Although Wal-Mart is only investing 3.1% of its overall capital expenditure on sustainable technologies, any investment h ere is significant given the influence of the world’s biggest retailer on what and how we buy. Wal-Mart’s well-publicised sustainability ambitions will have a direct influence on global consumption patterns. By reducing the carbon required to bring everyday products to market and, hopefully in the longer-term, taking some carbon villains off the shelves, Wal-Mart is making a meaningful contribution to a sustainable future.

However, in order to deliver the pace and scale of change required to guarantee a low carbon future, we need to see all the largest companies on the globe commit to stretching reduction targets, as well as to double-digit investment figures in new, sustainable technologies. Some of the carbon-hungry business models seen in our top 10 businesses are not part of a sustainable future. Carbon is becoming the new currency of business. Those businesses that use it wisely will be rewarded. Those that overspend will, along with their business models, be consigned to history.

· Dr Sally Uren is director of Forum for the Future’s business programme. Forum for the Future advises the Guardian on sustainability. and its sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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