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Big Oil’s “climate pledges” continue their legacy of deception
We’re taking a look at the bag of tricks oil companies use to spin their phony and insufficient net-zero plans.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
Last month, ExxonMobil became the latest oil giant to get on the “net-zero” bandwagon, finally announcing its very own "ambition" to “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for operated assets by 2050.” All the rage among top climate polluters, including Chevron, Shell, and BP, net-zero plans promise (to try) to level out emissions on an extended, and often vague, timeline, relying on a host of schemes to distract from the reality that these companies are still polluting and driving the climate crisis.
Despite these companies’ best efforts to appear otherwise, they will never be “part of the solution” to climate change as long as they continue to drill, explore for, and produce even more fossil fuels.
Members of Congress are now expanding their probe into the fossil fuel industry’s climate disinformation to include these misleading pledges. And — shocker! — the companies’ board members don’t seem eager to talk about them under oath.
The truth is that the fossil fuel industry’s pledges are totally insufficient to avert climate catastrophe.
Here are four of the most common ways that Big Oil cloaks their “net zero” announcements in misdirection and deception:
#1: They exclude most of their total emissions — and shift responsibility to consumers.
Many net-zero plans exclude so-called Scope 3 emissions in their accounting — that is, the emissions that arise when consumers use their product as intended. For the majority of oil companies, the emissions that they do plan to reduce — Scope 1 and 2, or operational emissions — are only 10-20% of their emissions in total.
A perfect example of this is the plan released by Exxon, which fails to account for any of the emissions generated when customers use their products as advertised and intended — roughly 85% of the company’s total emissions.
The company instead says “changes in society’s energy use coupled with the development and deployment of affordable lower-emission technologies will be required” to reduce those emissions. In other words: it’s your responsibility, not ours.
“Pledges that omit Scope 3 not only ignore the lion’s share of an oil and gas company’s global warming impact, they also attempt to reframe the climate crisis as an issue of individual responsibility rather than corporate accountability,” says Kathy Mulvey, Accountability Campaign Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “They seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it, too: winning praise and taking credit for the full range of emissions cuts, while transferring responsibility to all of us to clean up the mess they created.”
#2: They rely on “post emissions compensation.”
Instead of actually reducing the emissions they put into the atmosphere, many Big Oil climate plans promise to suck carbon out after the fact.
These plans include carbon capture and storage (CCS) and “nature-based offsets” — for instance, planting trees or protecting forests in one location while polluting in another. Here’s the thing: oil majors have no real idea if their schemes are feasible, as they’ve never tried to implement them at scale.
We’ve previously covered the financial risks and public health dangers of CCS technology, which would require building vast networks of new pipeline infrastructure — likely in the same communities already hit worst by fossil fuel pollution and climate change.
Plans to capture carbon with nature-based offsets are rife with risks and unknowns too, according to Moira Birss, Climate and Finance Director at Amazon Watch.
Birss points to Shell’s 2021 “energy transition scenario” to limit emissions at 1.5 degrees Celsius, which relies almost completely on offsets — centrally, a vague plan to plant trees “over an area approaching that of Brazil.”
“Shell wants to claim that forest equivalent to the world's fifth largest country — a country that is currently rapidly deforesting the Amazon rainforest — can and should be available to ‘compensate’ for its continued drilling,” Birss said. “Forests are not a magic depository for emissions. The offset model is really problematic.”
Birss says that equity issues, including violation of local communities’ land rights, are also at play. And by allowing companies to continue polluting, the offset model gives way to more production and extraction in Indigenous communities and communities of color across the globe.
#3: Their targets cover only a portion of their business operations.
By excluding an entire section of their business, like refining, or assets operated by a partner company, oil giants can pollute more while claiming to emit less.
In BP’s net-zero plan, the company claims it will reduce oil production 40% by 2030 — conveniently leaving out its joint venture with Russian oil giant Rosneft, which accounts for nearly a third of its total production. In reality, the company plans to reduce production only by less than 30% of its 2019 levels.
In total, almost half of BP’s emissions are ignored in the company’s net-zero pledge, according to an analysis by Oil Change International. That means its overall emissions can still increase at least through the end of the decade, which the company has admitted to investors.
#4: They promise to become more efficient polluters.
By focusing plans on emissions intensity, or emissions per barrel of oil produced, oil companies can pollute more efficiently while still increasing their overall emissions.
Chevron is a master at this one. The company has pledged that it “is committed to addressing climate change,” but it hasn’t promised to reduce oil production or exploration. In 2021, it announced that it would increase its oil production 17.5% from 2020 levels by 2025. But because Chevron is promising to also lower the intensity of the related emissions, the company claims to be doing something good — in reality, it is simply polluting more, more efficiently.
Chevron’s deceptive use of emissions intensity metrics are cited in the Federal Trade Commission complaint the company is currently facing for misleading consumers about its commitments to climate and environmental action.
Exxon, Shell, Chevron and BP have made it abundantly clear that despite their big talk, they have no intention to lower greenhouse gas emissions at the scale and timeline needed. As we’ve discussed here before, the companies’ pledges instead cleverly obscure their real goal: to continue profiting from fossil fuel production on a massive scale while avoiding regulation and accountability for as long as possible.
Big Oil can’t hide behind their deception forever. U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the House Oversight committee, is giving the board members one “last chance to cooperate” to testify March 8 — or face “further action,” (i.e. subpoenas).
“If these fossil fuel companies were really taking meaningful steps to curb dangerous emissions, their boards of directors would be eager to testify before the Committee when requested, and speak to the American people,” Maloney said.
The fact that they aren’t speaks volumes.
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