$1 trillion… a solution to climate change?

My 10 year old son and I were talking the other night and he asked me: “Dad, what would you do with $1 billion?”. What followed was a conversation about how we’d try to invest the money in ways that had social impact (climate, child poverty, cancer were high on his list), while also saving just enough for our family to be secure. But then he asked me, “What about $1 trillion?” That’s a big number. Only two countries – China and the United States – each have a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $7 trillion.  Add Japan and Germany if you’re talking over $3 trillion, with just 15 countries in total with more than $1 trillion in GDP.

And then we stumbled upon an idea. Could we address one of his concerns – climate change – if we bought up oil companies and then figured out a way to shut them down without major social, economic and political disruption? A little bit of back of the envelope calculation and we figured out that $1 trillion could buy you ExxonMobil ($400 billion market cap and world’s 4th largest oil company) and #6 BP ($130 billion), $210 billion for #7 Royal Dutch Shell and #8 Chevron ($200 billion), with room to spare. If half of the world’s 7 billion people could invest $200 to a general fund that would get you most of the way. If one-fifth of the world’s population invested $700 that would be more than enough.

But what would the climate impact be to take four of the top 10 oil producers in the world offline? Not totally precise (but close enough), let’s assume daily oil production of the four companies of 2.5 million barrels per day, or a total of 10 million per day, or 3.65 billion barrels per year. Assuming 430 kilograms of CO2 per barrel of oil burned, that’s about 1.6 trillion kg of CO2, or 1.6 billion tonnes. Total CO2 emissions in 2011 were 34 billion tonnes. So the net result would be a 4% decrease in CO2 emissions if the four oil companies stopped producing oil tomorrow.

Worth a $1 trillion? Not sure, but an interesting exercise in the power of crowdsourced impact investment. And given the current international talks on climate, perhaps no less feasible in achieving emission reduction goals.