Greenhouse gases: Major oil and gas companies still the main polluters since 2016 Paris Agreement to cut emissions

Climate change: Database update reveals 57 large multinationals are responsible for 80 per cent of emissions since 2016

It was known for many years that a small number of mega corporations including state oil and gas companies were responsible for the vast amount of global greenhouse gas emissions, despite growing climate guilt among individuals.

But the extent to which they have continued to be carbon polluters since the landmark Paris Agreement of 2016 has only now been revealed, in the update issued this week to the Carbon Majors database compiled by leading climate researchers.

It shows 57 large multinationals are responsible for 80 per cent of emissions since 2016, including all the usual rogues in the oil and gas sector.

The data confirms not only a ‘business-as-usual’ collective mindset but is yet another indication that global decarbonisation is not happening at the scale required to stabilise planet Earth – even if there are indications of a clean energy revolution gathering pace.


The analysis indicates state-controlled corporations and shareholder-owned multinationals are the main culprits fuelling an overheating world. Not only that, they are defying governments’ pledges made in Paris to cut greenhouse gases. Most mega-producers increased their output of fossil fuels and related emissions in the seven years since compared with the seven years before.

In the database of 122 of the world’s biggest historical climate polluters, the researchers found 65 per cent of state entities and 55 per cent of private-sector companies had scaled up production. This goes beyond oil and gas companies, and includes coal, cement and mining interests.

The biggest investor-owned contributor to global emissions was ExxonMobil of the United States, linked to 3.6 gigatonnes of CO2 over seven years – or 1.4 per cent of the global total. Shell, BP, Chevron and TotalEnergies followed close behind, each being responsible for at least 1 per cent of emissions.

The UAE state oil company, Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, is the 20th-biggest emitter on the list. Its chairman is Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber, who presided over UN climate negotiations in Dubai last December as president of Cop28. Almost 200 countries may have agreed there to transition away from fossil fuels, but the presence of at least 2,456 fossil fuel lobbyists probably ensured no immediate threat to their “resources”.

“This research highlights once again that there’s a big gap between what companies and governments say they will do about climate change and what they actually do,” according to Hans Zomer of Global Action Plan Ireland, which aims to inspire people and communities to become environmental “change makers”.

It’s important for everyone to learn about climate change, what causes it “and how it affects us, so that we can push for real change”, he says.

“We are already seeing countless people organising and working together to develop local responses to these global forces. When people see their power to effect change in their community, they will also see how all these grassroots initiatives can add up and change how people with power act,” Zomer adds. “Ultimately, it is people power that will change the behaviour of those who believe in ‘business as usual’.”

The International Energy Agency concluded in 2021 no new oil, gas or coal fields can be opened if the world is to stay within safe limits of heating. Multiple studies published since found global temperatures are rapidly approaching the lower Paris target of 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial era, with potentially dire consequences for humanity and the natural world.

“It is morally reprehensible for companies to continue expanding exploration and production of carbon fuels in the face of knowledge now for decades that their products are harmful,” said carbon geographer Richard Heede, who established the Carbon Majors data set in 2013. “Don’t blame consumers who have been forced to be reliant on oil and gas due to government capture by oil and gas companies.”

The data set has helped change the narrative about responsibility for the climate crisis by apportioning emissions to entities that profit from taking fossil fuels out of the ground rather than individuals that later burn and discharge them in the form of emissions. This ongoing research has been cited in climate lawsuits and was the basis for the Guardian’s 2019 series The Polluters, which ‘named and shamed’ the 20 companies behind a third of all carbon emissions.

“When faced with these stark stats it’s tempting to say what’s the point in climate action at Irish and European level,” says long-time environmental activist Iva Pocock, a first-time local election candidate for the Green Party in Co Tipperary.

If business as usual continues we won’t have a liveable planet for our children and grandchildren

As for the question of what else can be done, she adds: “We push as hard as we can within our sphere of influence. Elect politicians who are climate leaders at home and abroad. Get behind your local county climate action plan. Support every move for a fairer fossil-fuel free world. Don’t be paralysed by climate guilt and anxiety. Try to channel that energy into progressive actions in your community.”

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP and Shell all have net zero emissions targets, though their definitions of that goal and methods to achieve it vary – and most have dialled back on near-term climate targets to concentrate on their highly profitable core businesses. Many on the list have invested in renewables, though this is usually a small fraction of their fossil fuel spending.

In response to the data, Shell said it was committed to becoming a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050, “a target we believe supports the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels”.

“We continue to make good progress on our climate targets, and by the end of 2023, we had achieved more than 60 per cent of our target to halve Scope 1 and 2 emissions [those it is directly responsible for] from our operations by 2030, compared with 2016,” a spokesperson told the Guardian.

The Carbon Majors database has been updated and relaunched on a dedicated public access website hosted by InfluenceMap. Its programme manager, Daan Van Acker, said many of the entities featured were moving in the wrong direction for climate stability. This group “is not slowing down production, with most entities increasing production after the Paris agreement. This research provides a crucial link in holding these energy giants to account on the consequences of their activities”.

Heede contends fossil fuel producers have a moral obligation to pay for the damages they have caused and exacerbated through their delaying tactics. He cites the The Bridgetown Initiative, spearheaded by Barbadian prime minister Mia Mottley, that includes a proposal that oil and gas companies contribute at least 10 cents in every dollar to a loss-and-damage fund.

He said he was encouraged by actions to hold fossil fuel firms to account, such as the billboards that sprang up in Houston, Texas, after a hurricane that declared “We Know Who Is To Blame” beside the names of oil companies, or the campaign in Vermont to create a climate superfund paid for by polluters that would allay rising costs from floods, storms and heatwaves.

“This is a threat to civilisation as we know it,” he added. “If business as usual continues we won’t have a liveable planet for our children and grandchildren. We must collect political, corporate and political will to avoid the worst threat that climate change poses. We can do this.”