Know Your Enemy: The World's Top 5 Climate Offenders

The CEOs of the companies most responsible for polluting planet Earth.
kid middle finger climate protest
Photo: Christopher Pugmire

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

The climate crisis is inspiring ordinary people to go to extraordinary lengths. Your friends, your aunts and your old maths teachers – they've all been getting themselves arrested, skipping school, eating from bins and vowing to never have children, all in the hope that doing so will prevent humankind from dying terribly in droughts or water wars or a massive natural disaster.


Other individuals, however, have been doing the exact opposite. Fossil fuel giants continue to intensify their activity, despite knowing full well the destabilising effects their products have on the ever-fragile environment.

Just 100 firms have been responsible for 71 percent of global industrial atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions since 1988, according to a 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP). Among them, 25 corporate and state producing entities account for more than half of global industrial GHG emissions. The CDP says the scale of historical emissions associated with the firms is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change.

But who exactly is at fault? Although the CEOs might not have been personally responsible for the decades of damage caused, they are in an unfavourable position because, as with any boss, the buck stops with them. Ultimately, they need to be held to account if we are to make tangible efforts towards preserving the Earth. Recognising the top five global polluters is a good place to start.

The figures in this article are taken from the 2017 CDP report and are the most up to date available at the time of publishing. We contacted the authors of the report, who said they're working on new stats, but that these are still accurate in terms of ranking.

darren woods exxon

Darren Woods meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2018. Photo: Liu Weibing / Xinhua / Alamy Live News

5: ExxonMobil Corp

Percentage of global industrial GHG emissions: 1.98 percent
CEO and chairman: Darren Woods

ExxonMobil is the only investor-owned firm in the top five global GHG polluters, and the world's largest listed oil company. Darren Woods became its boss at the beginning of 2017 after 24 years with the firm.


Woods supports The Paris Agreement and personally wrote a letter to Trump to urge him to keep the US party to the climate accord. However, it was alleged by an InfluenceMap report earlier this year that ExxonMobil had spent $41 million (£32.9 million) a year lobbying to block climate change policies.

The firm is facing a lawsuit, brought by New York's attorney general last October, over allegations that it misled investors by understating the risk climate change poses to the company's assets. The legal action followed a three-year investigation and centres on ExxonMobil's use of "proxy costs" for carbon to account for the economic upset of potential future climate change regulations. The lawsuit alleges that the firm did not always apply the publicly represented proxy cost, either applying a lower, undisclosed proxy cost or none at all.

ExxonMobil branded the lawsuit "meritless" and the allegations "baseless" at the time.

A spokesman told VICE: "For many years, ExxonMobil has applied a proxy cost of carbon to its investment opportunities, where appropriate, in order to anticipate the aggregate financial impact of potential future government policies. ExxonMobil's external statements have accurately described its use of a proxy cost of carbon, and the documents produced to the attorney general make this fact unmistakably clear."

A trial is set to start in Manhattan next month.

Meanwhile, Woods has spoken of the importance of engagement and discussion, but did not participate in a European parliament joint hearing into climate change denial in March. The EU parliament decided against removing ExxonMobil's lobbying badges, though, because it said the firm had not been formally invited to attend the hearing.


An ExxonMobil spokesman said: "We reject long-discredited theories that attempt to portray legitimate scientific observations and differences on policy approaches as climate denial. Any such allegation is refuted by the historical record, which includes ExxonMobil's nearly 40-year history of climate research that was conducted publicly in conjunction with the Department of Energy, academics and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"We have discontinued funding to several groups when they took extreme positions that were distracting from the important discussion on climate policy and/or not supported by science. The risk of climate change is clear and warrants action. We believe that it's going to take all of us – business, governments and individuals – to make meaningful progress and we want to be part of the solution. Since 2000 we have invested $10 billion on lower-emission technologies such as carbon capture and algae biofuels."

masoud karbasian

Masoud Karbasian. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

4: National Iranian Oil Co

Percentage of global industrial GHG emissions: 2.28%
CEO: Masoud Karbasian

A state-owned enterprise, the National Iranian Oil Co is the world's second-largest oil company. The firm is capable of producing more than 4 million barrels of crude oil and over 750 million cubic metres of natural gas per day.

Masoud Karbasian was appointed CEO of the NIOC in November of 2018, joining as the Trump administration introduced an oil embargo on Iran. He previously served as Iran's finance minister, until he was impeached by parliament last August for failing to respond adequately to the impact of US economic sanctions, reimposed over Iran's nuclear programme.


In a conspicuous absence, few mentions of climate change, environmental responsibility and emissions can be found on the NIOC website. Karbasian did, however, say that environmental protection is "a type of responsibility inherent in the ethics, culture and beliefs" of his firm in June of this year. He outlined plans to limit environmental damage, including prioritising prevention over reforming activities. Iran has signed but not ratified the Paris Agreement.

The National Iranian Co did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

alexey miller

Alexey Miller. Photo: Pluto / Alamy Stock Photo

3: Gazprom OAO

Percentage of global industrial GHG emissions: 3.91%
CEO: Alexey Miller

Kremlin-controlled natural gas firm Gazprom is the most valuable publicly traded company in Russia. Alexey Miller has been the chairman of its management committee since 2001. Before that, he was Russia's deputy energy minister.

Under his watch, Gazprom became the first company to pump oil from the Arctic shelf at the Prirazlomnoye field, which is said to contain more than 70 million tons of oil, in December of 2013. Planning for a giant gas pipeline across Europe is also underway. The Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline would run from Russia to Germany, but critics, including UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, US President Donald Trump and European Council President Donald Tusk, have condemned the project as "divisive", making "Germany a hostage of Russia" and "negative", respectively.


Miller was last year included on a US sanctions list – something he said he was proud of. The sanctions were designed to penalise Russian figures for various activities, including alleged election interference.

Gazprom was the first oil and gas company in Russia to develop an environmental policy, and on its website says it "takes appropriate measures to continuously improve its environmental performance", by setting corporate environmental targets and giving employees relevant training.

Gazprom OAO did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

amin nasser

Amin H Nasser. Photo: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

2: Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco)

Percentage of global industrial GHG emissions: 4.50%
CEO: Amin H Nasser

State-owned Saudi Aramco is the world's most profitable company and the biggest emitter of GHG in the fossil fuel sector. The firm claims that oil and gas will remain key to meeting rising global energy demand because, Nasser says, "alternatives will not be ready to shoulder the burden of supplying adequate and affordable energy for some time".

Plans for a $2 trillion market listing of the oil giant were recently revived. The initial public offering, which Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says will happen by 2021, is expected to be the world's largest.

Nasser became CEO of Saudi Aramco in 2015 after 33 years at the firm. He started work there as an engineer in the oil production department. He holds a degree in petroleum engineering from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran.


Nasser has spoken of his firm's commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and pledged to fund technologies that "create significant environmental advantages".

Aramco did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

1: China (Coal)

Percentage of global industrial GHG emissions: 14.32%
CEO: The state

China, where coal emissions are represented by the state and production is broken down into several state-owned industry groups, is the world's largest producer and consumer of coal. It's also the largest GHG emitter, and air pollution causes 1.6 million premature deaths across the country every year, according to a report by the US-based Health Effects Institute.

China signed The Kyoto Protocol in 1998 – but was exempt from the binding emission reduction targets – and ratified the Paris Climate Agreement in 2016. Astoundingly, the nation met its 2020 carbon target three years ahead of schedule when it cut carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 46 percent from the 2005 level at the end of 2017.

However, China's coal output rose 2.6 percent to 1.76 billion tons in the first half of this year, and approvals for new coal mine construction projects have increased fivefold over the same period. Satellite photos also appear to show that construction resumed on suspended coal-fired power plants last year – a move indicative of its supposed belief that coal production and consumption can increase alongside reductions in emissions.

The country’s coal-fired capacity is planned to continue to grow until peaking in 2030.