Big oil companies talk “net zero” goals (But their actions don’t live up)

  • Published on May 14th, 2020

What are we doing to keep our planet habitable? Well, the oil industry certainly wants you to think that its continued existence is perfectly compatible with a non-deadly atmosphere, but is it? No, not really.

shell oil net zero

By Climate Denier Roundup

That’s a simplified description of findings from a new report from the Transition Pathway Initiative (TPI), which compares the “net zero” commitments of six oil and gas majors, with what they’re actually doing. As expected, plans fall far short of what’s needed for the oil and gas industry to actually be net zero.

One of the biggest threats to individuals from climate change is the combination of high heat and humidity. When temperature and humidity exceed a certain point, simply being outside for more than a brief amount of time becomes deadly because the human body’s natural cooling process, sweating, fails when it’s so humid that the sweat doesn’t evaporate. The danger point is around 95F when there’s high humidity. According to one new study, by 2050 climate change will double the number of days it will be too hot to work outside, and triple it by 2100, putting farmworkers at even greater risk.

According to another new study, these temperatures, which climate models hadn’t expected us to hit until at least mid-century, are already being felt in a variety of subtropical locations. And if we don’t reduce emissions rapidly, people across the planet will be subjected to these lethal conditions as they try to grow food, or build houses, or repair roads, or play sports, or do anything outside for more than an hour.

The TPI paper got a decent amount of coverage yesterday, with Emily Atkin’s characteristically salty “bologna” treatment, and more straightforward coverage at Reuters and the BBC.

Akshat Rathi’s piece at Bloomberg explains some of the basics of what “scope 1” 2, and 3 emissions are and what that means for these plans.

  • Scope 1 covers emissions made by the company itself (e.g. a furnace in an office building, fuel burned by company vehicles, and flaring)
  • Scope 2 are emissions someone else burns on a company’s behalf (e.g. the power plant that supplies an office building with electricity)
  • Scope 3 is everything else, including emissions from the combustion of a company’s product.

For the fossil fuel industry, what matters most are Scope 3 emissions, but they like to make grand pronouncements about drastic cuts to their Scope 1 and 2 emissions. Despite representing around 90% of most of these companies’ total emissions, only in recent years have they even begun talking about Scope 3 emission reductions.

In addition to making it look like they’re doing more than they are by highlighting Scope 1 and 2 emission goals (solar panels on office buildings look pretty!), the key to Big Oil’s deception is their embrace of the “net zero” label.

Of course, it sounds like “no pollution,” but there’s no specific definition of what “net zero” means. It could mean not actually reducing emissions at all, and just buying potentially useless and unreliable carbon offsets, it could mean developing and deploying carbon capture technology to prevent emissions at the smokestack, or it could mean what TPI identifies as the only real and honest meaning for “net zero” –  actually emitting zero greenhouse gases (by replacing fossil fuels with clean energy).

The TPI report lauds Shell for having the most ambitious plan, a 65% reduction in emissions by 2050, which Shell claims are in line with the Paris agreement and a goal of keeping warming below 1.5°C. While better than the rest, that’s still not enough. The TPI report shows that “alignment with 1.5°C scenarios requires a 100 percent reduction in net emissions (i.e. ‘net zero’) by 2050.”

That additional 35% Shell needs to reduce to actually meet Paris goals, the report states, will need to come from reductions in the Scope 3 emissions of its customers.

And as bad as the best-in-class being woefully insufficient may be, this doesn’t even apply to US firms like ExxonMobil, who haven’t even bothered to pretend they’re trying to keep this planet’s atmosphere in a state that allows for human life.

(Crossposted with DailyKos. Photo by Atli Harðarson on Flickr.)


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