Big Oil’s Climate Plans Fail at Every Metric

Big Oil’s Climate Plans Fail at Every Metric
Oil companies' flashy climate plans don't live up to the hype. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Fossil fuel companies are talking a big game about climate policy. This year, BP pledged to cut its fossil fuel investments by 40%, Shell pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and other oil giants have made similar promises, too. Right now, executives from these firms are bragging about their plans for carbon neutrality to policymakers and other powerful people at New York’s annual Climate Week.

But — surprise! — new research shows that not a single one of these major oil company’s pledges comes close to aligning with leading climate scientists’ recommendations. Who’da thunk?

The analysis, released on Wednesday by Oil Change International with endorsements from 30 climate justice groups, examined eight oil majors’ climate plans. To see if the plans jived with the limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels — a threshold which leading climatologists say would be catastrophic to cross — the authors graded each one based on 10 criteria, ranking the plans on the spectrum from “fully aligned” to “grossly insufficient.”

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The analysts separated these 10 metrics into three categories: ambition, integrity, and plans for a transition to a clean energy economy. Ambition judges what the pledges should aim to do, including halting oil and gas exploration and other measures to curb fossil fuel supply. Integrity includes criteria for corporations’ honesty about their role in the climate crisis, such as not relying on unproven carbon capture technology and not misrepresenting the carbon impact of natural gas.

In both of these two categories, the firms fared poorly. For instance, not a single oil company pledge includes a promise to stop approving new extraction projects. None pledged to stop exploration, either, though BP has pledged to stop overseas exploration. Two of the 10 companies — BP and Eni — have made commitments to lower their fossil fuel production, yet their commitments are wholly insufficient to meet the 1.5-degree-Celsius target. And all the companies rely on carbon offsets to meet their aims.

In the third group of criteria, transition planning, things went from bad to worse. Authors judged whether or not each plan includes specific commitments to end extraction in time to meet the 1.5-degree-Celsius limit and support laid off workers in the process. Not a single plan includes language on either of these goals.

Some of the companies ranked below others on their report cards, with ExxonMobil and Chevron faring the worst of the eight firms. But even comparatively strong plans, like those put forth by Eni, BP, and Repsol, are completely insufficient.

“All the big oil and gas companies we looked at largely failed across the board,” David Tong, senior campaigner in the energy transitions and futures team at Oil Change International who was an author on the report, said.

Tong and his co-authors also looked two aspects of the eight companies’ plans which didn’t include in their key criteria: promises to lower the carbon intensity of their manufacturing and promises to invest in renewable energy. Though firms often tout these commitments as the crown jewels of their climate plans, the researchers felt neither has bearing on how robust the plans are in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.

“Aiming to increase oil and gas production even while reducing the emissions per barrel or cubic metre can still lead to increases in total emissions,” Tong said. “Investment in renewable energy only matters for our climate if it actually replaces oil, fossil gas, and coal production and use. A company can grow its investment in renewable energy while still growing its emissions too.”

He also noted that handing over control of renewable energy markets to these companies, which have long histories of human rights abuses and corruption, could be dangerous. The transition away from fossil fuels should include strong protections for laid-off fossil fuel workers and should not be built on abusive labour or practices that disrupt the natural world, and we can’t trust oil companies on those fronts.

The report comes on the heels of another study, published in the Social Science Research Network last week, which shows that ten leading oil companies are resistant to taking strong climate action, despite what each of their flashy plans say. “Serious decarbonization poses an existential threat” to the companies’ business models, the paper notes.

Though that study shows that European oil companies are overall less resistant than U.S. ones, a May study found that climate plans from leading European fossil energy producers do not come close to meeting the targets of the Paris Climate Agreement.

This recent slew of new research makes it clear that despite their nice words, oil companies absolutely cannot be trusted to regulate their own greenhouse gas emissions or oversee their transitions to renewable energy.

“It’s time for governments to step in and manage the decline in oil and gas production,” Tong said.