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Climate change -- brought to you by the extractive industries

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Our household, like most Canadian households, works hard to reduce, re-used and recycle. But a new report shows that globally, the most that all our households put together could account for, would be only one-third of carbon emissions.

A scant 90 extractive industry companies have generated two-thirds of all carbon emissions in our now overheated climate -- not just now, but since the dawn of industrialization (about 1750). And half those emissions have occurred since 1986.

Observing the argument between developed and developing countries over what nations should be most responsible for constraining emissions, veteran climatologist Richard Heede instead suggested following the money. Who profits from carbon emissions?

"The question of wealth generated through the production and use of fossil fuels suggests an alternative to the nation-state approach," he wrote, "to analyze emissions in terms of the fossil fuels produced by incorporated entities -- such as investor-owned or state-owned companies -- rather than states as consumers and emitters."

Such an approach reveals, for example, why some developing countries seem to have high emissions although they have little industry: the world's richest mining, oil and gas, and cement industries are extracting poor nations' resource wealth and leaving behind their waste. Some regions of New Brunswick and Northern Alberta could say the same.

"Shifting the perspective from nation-states to corporate entities -- both investor-owned and state-owned companies -- opens new opportunities for those entities to become part of the solution rather than passive (and profitable) bystanders to continued climate disruption," he concluded.

Heede started his analysis by looking at the extractive industry companies -- coal, oil and gas, and cement -- compiling and analyzing their reported revenues and sales volumes, and then calculated the carbon emissions from the amout of production.

"A total of 914 billion tonnes of CO2-equivalent (GtCO2e) has been traced to 90 international entities based on analysis of historic production records dating from 1854 to 2010," he reported.  "...The emissions traced to the carbon majors represent 63 percent of global industrial CO2 and methane from fossil fuel combustion, flaring, venting, fugitive or vented methane, own fuel use, and cement between 1751 and 2010."

Here we have a conundrum from the Industrial Age. Those 90 companies could, quite justifiably, take credit for having spurred and supported all the modern wealth and conveniences we enjoy, from central heating and electric power, to the combustion engine, to skyscrapers and highways. Their incessant quest for products and profits has expanded, not just our world, but also our life expectancy.

On the other hand, most of these companies have also resisted efforts to regulate how they operate, especially in the face of keener and keener environmental concerns.  Indeed, observers like Andrew Nikiforuk point to oil lobbyists as the reason the Harper government strongly advocates pipelines and disparages environmental concerns.

After Harper's government officials entertained oil lobbyists at more than 2,700 meetings in four years, wrote Nikiforuk, the government changed draft legislation -- legislation that they then presented to Parliament in Omnibus Bills. "All changes made it easier for foreign and domestic firms to build pipelines and mines by removing key environmental safeguards for water, air, land, fish and endangered species," he wrote.

Environmental groups have often targeted specific sectors or corporations for specific concerns, such as the Greenpeace campaign that convinced Home Depot to stop selling lumber from old-growth rainforests. The Sierra Club's BeyondCoal.org  has retired 155 coal-fired power plants in the U.S, and put a practical moratorium on new coal plants, by opposing each and every proposal across that country.

As citizens, and as consumers, we can use Heede's report to make our own ethical decisions, with the use of this interactive guide. Chevron, Exxon and BP Oil seem to be the biggest emitters, according to this report.

We don't necessarily have the same options in dealing with institutions like the Pentagon, which is often cited as the single largest fuel user in the world, although not included in this study.

Heede's study introduces a new way to assess the causes and culprits in pollution. Valiant and valuable as household recycling efforts may be, the real villains are much bigger than we are. I interviewed Elizabeth May on the subject of personal vs. corporate responsibility a few years ago, and I think her analysis is still valid.

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