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Business World Begins U-Turn on Climate Targets

Barely a couple of years ago, setting climate targets and emission reduction plans was de rigueur in the business world. There was a veritable race to out-target competitors in order to win the hearts, minds, and wallets of customers and investors. Now, this has all changed.

Last week, the Energy Institute's Statistical Review of World Energy showed global emissions are still on the rise while the total share of alternative energy sources dubbed renewable in the global mix remained minuscule. Overall energy demand also rose, as did oil demand specifically.

The findings of the Energy Institute were hardly a surprise. Still, some in the corporate world may have been surprised after so many years of promises from climate NGOs that ESG investing is the way forward and that relying on hydrocarbons was very yesterday and very unsustainable-and unprofitable.

In just a few short years, ESG investing failed to live up to the hype, wind and solar developers suffered a massive stock crash because of a surge in production costs, and EV makers got themselves into a bind with fewer and fewer people enthusiastic about their products. While this was happening, corporations found out their climate targets were quite often unrealistic. So they started revising them or straight out dropping them.

Related: U.S. Remains The World's Most Attractive Renewables Market

The Financial Times published an overview of the trend recently, noting that the revisions and cancelations of climate targets had been motivated by political and regulatory developments-or the lack thereof. Another common complaint among business executives, it appears, was the absence of sufficient government support, commonly called subsidies.

That last point seems especially noteworthy because governments in Europe and the United States, where most of those climate-ambitious corporations are based, are being rather generous with their subsidies for the transition to a low-emission economic model. Still, this has not been enough for these corporations to meet their targets, including severing ties with "polluting sectors", as the FT put it, which in most cases means the energy industry.

"Everyone got swept up in a wave of enthusiasm," the head of sustainable investing research at Dutch asset manager Robeco, Rachel Whittaker, told the FT. "The reality is not so easy." Indeed, reality has repeatedly demonstrated that there is quite a gap between setting emission reduction goals on paper and actually reducing these emissions, whether through actual cuts in activity or through the purchase of carbon offsets.

The latter have come into the spotlight following reports showing that they consistently fail to live up to their promise, casting a shadow over the whole emission-cutting push, of which these offsets were to be a big-and lucrative-part, according to transition champions such as John Kerry.

Then, there is the problem of actual emission reduction through cuts in activity. Shell was ordered by a court in the Netherlands to do just that after an environmentalist group sued the company and won a couple of years ago. Shell appealed and this year reversed its transition plans that indeed featured shrinking production of oil and gas. The decision, announced by CEO Wael Sawan, caused a stir in the media and likely satisfaction among investors as demand for oil and gas remained robust while Shell's low-carbon ventures were falling short of expectations, just like BP's, which also did a U-turn on its transition plans shortly before CEO Bernard Looney was ousted.

Banks supposed to be cutting the amount of business they do with the oil and gas industry have been slow in effecting these cuts, for the most part. There have been some, such as French Credit Agricole, which have announced plans to sever all ties with hydrocarbon-producing businesses, but most have, despite their emission pledges, remained invested in the energy industry. This has been for the simple reason that these investments have been profitable, unlike many in the low-emissions segment of the industry spectrum.

There are also all those companies from various industries that have simply discovered their targets were more hopeful than realistic. Now, they are going on impossible amid the regulatory push from governments in the West aimed at preventing so-called greenwashing or making false statements about emission reduction activities.

Because of that push, a lot of companies are having second thoughts about their climate targets because they may be unable to prove they are indeed making progress towards their targets. And that's because the so-called reporting standards rely on emission reporting methods that the FT called "frustrating guesswork".

Canada recently gave the world a taste of what taking this to extremes looks like when it passed a law essentially banning companies from making any claims about emission reduction unless they have sound proof that these claims are factual. The oil and gas industry reacted by removing all content from industry group websites and slamming the government for the vague definitions in the law that would make providing this proof of climate progress well-nigh impossible while opening the door to lawsuits for climate activists.

The business world is going back on its climate commitments after it discovered there is a big difference between hopes and ambitions, on the one hand, and physical reality, on the other. As governments double down on their own climate plans-which depend on the business world playing along-we might see an even greater divide between the two.

By Irina Slav for

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Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry. More