In recent years, variations on a meme claiming that 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions have become ubiquitous on the internet. They are often used to push back against the idea that individuals have a role to play in confronting the climate crisis, and particularly to undermine the importance of plant-based diets in climate action. There is a lot to unpack here, but let’s start at the beginning: Just about every one of these memes misrepresents the research it is based on and thus contributes to misinformation.
Memes referring to “71% of emissions” became popular following the publication of a Carbon Majors update report in 2017 produced by the Climate Accountability Institute that extended a conceptual frame introduced by Dr. Heede several years earlier. And while memes are a powerful way to spread information, they unfortunately rarely cite source research. Instead, memes based on research take a complicated methodology and distill it to a few words.
In this case, the memes often imply that the Carbon Majors research states these companies are responsible for 71 percent of all emissions—but this is incorrect. Total global emissions include the combined impacts of energy, transportation, food, buildings, and much more, but these studies were not looking at total global emissions. They were focusing on one piece of the puzzle and tracing emissions from the production of oil, gas, coal, and cement back to the companies that produced these products. The finding that 100 corporations were responsible for the majority of fossil fuel and cement production emissions is substantial, but it does not tell us about total emissions or about emissions from other sectors.
These industrial producers should be held accountable because many of them have known since the 1960s what impact their products would have on the climate, and yet they spread misinformation to delay climate action in order to bolster their profits. The Carbon Majors analyses added to a growing body of literature seeking to understand their role and seek accountability for it.
Understanding where emissions come from
Within international climate negotiations, responsibility for emissions is based on the quantity of emissions produced within a country’s borders. This is useful in some ways, but one way it is not useful is in how it masks the role of large multinational corporations in emissions production.
In order to get to net-zero emissions, all potential sources need to be considered. Fossil fuels are the largest source, but every sector needs to be scrutinized. Emissions from the agriculture sector have numerous sources. Changes in land use; for instance, when land that served one purpose is then used for another, such as when a rainforest is turned into pasture lead to increased emissions. These changes are not included in the Carbon Majors research, and more importantly, the emission sources they reflect are not either. Emissions related to animal product production and consumption are excluded from the Carbon Majors research, and so it is entirely irrelevant to use data from the Carbon Majors analysis to draw any conclusions about meat and dairy consumption.
There is a steady stream of inaccurate information online, and it can be hard to recognize it as such. This is especially true when considering confirmation bias. For example, if someone who wants to eat meat sees a meme that implies a relatively small number of large corporations are responsible for climate change, it will be tempting to use that meme to disparage vegans and others following a plant-based diet.
Deflecting the need for a global transition to plant-based diets by pointing to research that is unrelated to agriculture and land use change emissions is counterproductive. The Carbon Majors analysis is an important contribution to our understanding of how fossil fuel companies perpetrated the climate crisis. It is valuable information and needs to be portrayed accurately. Taking the conclusions of it out of context to disparage the important action of confronting emissions from agriculture and land use change is harmful.
Combating climate change
The scientific literature is clear that a global switch away from animal agriculture and towards a plant-based diet is an integral component of combating climate change. This will require changes on the consumption side as well as the production side. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special Report on Climate Change and Land (IPCC SRCCL) shows that a global switch to plant-based diets has the potential to reduce global annual emissions, which are currently around 55.3 GtCO2e/yr, by up to 8 GtCO2e/yr. That is not a trivial number. If it is just a couple of people making changes, that isn’t enough. Effective climate mitigation starts on a massive scale with people working together, each according to their own means. Consumption patterns are of particular concern in nations with high per capita meat consumption, such as the United States.
To minimize further destabilization of the climate system, greenhouse gas emissions need to drop by more than half within the next 10 years. To achieve that an accurate understanding of scientific research is needed. However, it is important to keep in mind that emissions are not the only issue when searching for accuracy and action steps to minimize climate harm. A just and sustainable future requires confronting the systems that lead to extractivism in the first place.
Climate change is driven by inequity and power. Building a more just future means dismantling systems of oppression. Oppressive structures are the root of the climate crisis. Capitalism and colonialism underlie fossil fuel extraction and defile Indigenous lands. In the agricultural industry, nonhuman animals are commodified for profit, while human workers are subject to horrendous working conditions. Exploitative practices harm humans, nonhuman animals, and the Earth.
Working towards climate justice means getting to the root of the causes, not merely reducing emissions. Racism, colonialism, capitalism, speciesism, and all other oppressive structures need to be dismantled to build a world with a stable climate and where all are safe and free.
Shaina Sadai is a climate science Ph.D. Candidate at UMass Amherst.