Emissions From Just 5 Oil Giants Could Kill 11.5 Million People Prematurely by 2100

By Julia Conley | 21 March 2024
Common Dreams

(Credit: Project LM / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A new report released Wednesday details how the emissions of just five big fossil fuel companies could lead to 11.5 million premature deaths by 2100 as continued oil and gas extraction and consumption heats the planet and sparks extreme heatwaves across the globe.

The analysis by Global Witness focused on the emissions of Shell, TotalEnergies, ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron—all of which have “defied calls from scientists to rapidly reduce emissions and continue to increase oil and gas production.”

ExxonMobil and Chevron have announced investments of more than $100 billion in new oil and gas reserves in recent months, even as the companies eye 2050 as the year they’ll reach net zero emissions. The United Nations’ Global Stocktake last September showed the five companies targeted in the report “are forecast to spend a staggering $3.1 trillion by 2050, on both existing and new oil and gas extraction”—despite the fact that the U.N. and the International Energy Agency have both warned that no new extraction is compatible with limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Global Witness cross-referenced the oil companies’ plans with research out of Columbia University, which estimated that every 1 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted in 2020 will cause 226 excess heat-related deaths over the next 80 years.

The analysis “suggests that these five companies will dig up oil and gas, which when burned, will add 51 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere between now and 2050,” said Global Witness. “Using Columbia’s mortality cost of carbon methodology, we calculate that emissions from the supermajors’ oil and gas would kill an additional 11.5 million people due to heat by 2100.”

Global Witness focused on heat-related deaths specifically; a study by Greenpeace Southeast Asia and the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air in 2020 found that air pollution from fossil fuel combustion was responsible for 4.5 million premature deaths worldwide each year.

Global Witness notes that the deaths of at least 61,000 people were linked to “searing heat across Europe” in 2022, and recent heatwaves have proven deadly in the United States, China, and South America in the past two years.

“Heat isn’t a new phenomenon,” said Global Witness. “But as the planet gets hotter because of human-caused emissions, scientists are detecting more heat-related deaths.”

Extreme heat puts people—particularly children, elderly people, pregnant people, and outdoor workers—at risk for heat stroke, heart attacks, and exhaustion.

“Behind these figures are people,” noted the group, pointing to the deaths of 72-year-old Gwendolyn Osborne in Chicago during a record-breaking heatwave in 2022 and of a 13-year-old girl who suffered deadly heat stroke in Japan last summer. “These are just a few stories from the massive and growing wave of heat-caused deaths around the world. Unless the supermajors change course quickly, the death toll will be comparable to some of history’s most brutal wars.”

The companies have an opportunity to save millions of lives, Global Witness noted, as the Columbia research found that with dramatically reduced emissions, the death toll from the oil giants’ emissions would be cut by more than half.

Global Witness included in its analysis the companies’ scope 3 emissions, which are produced when people and entities use the firms’ products.

When approached by the organization, TotalEnergies objected to the inclusion of scope 3 emissions, saying fossil fuel companies are only responsible for scope 1 (the direct emissions from their facilities) and 2 (emissions from the company’s use of electricity, heat, and other utilities).

The companies’ net zero pledges for 2050 pertain only to scopes 1 and 2.

Global Witness compared TotalEnergies’s claim to those of drug dealers who say “they aren’t to blame for drug addictions” or arms dealers who “claim that they don’t kill people—that they’re simply supplying people with products they want.”

“Oil and gas companies are solely responsible for digging up these fossil fuels, and they’re doing it eyes wide open in the face of a mountain of evidence documenting the suffering and death that fossil fuels cause, while failing to make even the most basic investments in green energy,” said the group.

The analysis came as The Guardian reported on consumer advocacy group Public Citizen’s campaign to hold fossil fuel companies legally liable for people’s deaths from extreme temperatures, climate-related hunger and disease, flooding, and wildfires.

Public Citizen has been holding events at Yale, Harvard, and New York University to discuss the idea with legal experts, and has reportedly gained some traction.

“Once I read it, I thought that it was more compelling than I had guessed it would be,” former Department of Justice prosecutor Cindy Cho told The Guardian of Public Citizen’s proposal. “I think that prosecutors should actively consider pursuing the theory, especially if they walk into the investigation with an understanding of the intense challenges.”

Global Citizen compared the millions of deaths the oil firms are projected to cause to a chemical spill.

“When a company spills lethal chemicals into a river, and harms people, we hold it legally responsible,” said the group. “The American chemical company DuPont has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars for polluting drinking water with chemicals. Will this responsibility extend to carbon emissions, which we can increasingly link to the deaths of millions of people? Certainly, it’s an argument the supermajors and their legal teams will be extremely concerned about.”

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New climate data shows global temperatures continuing to rise sharply | DW News

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