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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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Is Big Oil Overselling Its Energy Transition Efforts?

  • Big Oil has made some big pledges to ramp up its efforts to curb emissions and invest in renewable energy.
  • A New report suggests that majors all used terms like "climate," "low-carbon" and "transition" more frequently than ever before in recent annual reports.
  • The actions of these supermajors, however, does not necessarily match their pledges.

February has been a month marked by explosive reports revealing sweeping greenwashing campaigns by the fossil fuels industry. As the dust settles from the first waves of the novel coronavirus pandemic, investigative watchdogs are taking stock of which institutions made what promises for curbing their carbon footprints, and how their actual measures and action plans measure up.  As the world scrambled to establish a pathway toward a “new normal” during the first wave of Covid-29 in 2020, hope for a better, greener future blossomed. The unexpected interruption to the status quo and the hitherto unstoppable momentum of the carbon-based global economy seemed to present an unmissable opportunity to redirect the world’s trajectory away from mutually assured industrial destruction to a greener, cleaner pathway wherein the goals set by the Paris climate accord were well within reach. The World Economic Forum argued that it was the perfect window for a “great reset” of the current capitalist system to achieve unprecedented international cooperation for sustainable development around the world. 

But by the time world leaders convened in Scotland for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), those utopic hopes were already withered. After bottoming out in 2020, fossil fuel demand rocketed back to pre-pandemic levels over the course of last year. 

Indeed, not only is coal still going strong, it’s received a boost from the continuing energy crunch. And, as a recent bombshell report from Urgewald and Reclaim Finance, alongside more than two dozen other non-governmental organizations, reveals: banks have spent a jaw-dropping $1.5 trillion on coal since 2019. Highlighting the prevalence of greenwashing in the sector, the report names BlackRock and Vanguard, two financial institutions that are keeping coal afloat at the same time that they boast memberships in the Net Zero Asset Managers Initiative. “These two institutions have more responsibility for accelerating climate change than any other institutional investor worldwide,” Yann Louvel, a policy analyst at Reclaim Finance, was quoted by CNBC.

Related: 5 Commodities That Could Explode As The Ukraine Crisis Escalates

Now another damning study has been released by the journal PLOS One – but this one takes aim at the oil industry. The greenwashing study, which analyzed the language used by oil supermajor in recent months and years, found that Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Shell all used terms like "climate," "low-carbon" and "transition" more frequently than ever before in recent annual reports and widely publicized decarbonization strategies. These pledges, however, have not translated into action, as these four companies remain financially reliant on fossil fuels and have together contributed more than 20% of global carbon emissions since 1965. 

"We thus conclude that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse," said the authors of the study, who are researchers at Tohoku University and Kyoto University in Japan. "Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded," they continued.

This study is just one piece of a recent deluge of revealing evidence that calls oil supermajors into account. The evidence is mounting that Big Oil is well aware of what needs to be done to reduce emissions and battle climate change – all of which is made clear in their statements to the public – but simply is not putting its money where its mouth is. 

Last year, in a landmark ruling, a judge from The Hague District Court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its worldwide CO2 emissions by 45% by 2030 as part of a “best-efforts obligation”. In the United States, a court case accusing Big Oil of knowingly lying about its contributions to climate change is working its way through the judicial system as we speak. It seems that an era of comeuppance is just beginning for the fossil fuels industry. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com

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