Think big oil is "greenwashing?" You aren't wrong, suggests a new study

A comprehensive study analyzed 12 years of data to find that accusations about so-called "greenwashing" are likely accurate, according to publicly available data..
Grant Currin
An off-shore oil platform.iStock / morkeman

About six months before the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, energy researcher Gregory Trencher came across an opinion piece in The Guardian titled “Shell is not a green saviour. It’s a planetary death machine.

Its author, columnist George Monbiot, argues in the piece that he’d recently encountered “dozens of environmentalists who appear to believe that Shell is on their side.”

The journalist vehemently disagreed.

“Don’t buy the greenwash,” Monibot exhorts in the punchy 1,200-word column. “Shell’s initiatives, which have won over many conservation groups, are dwarfed by its investment in oil and gas.”

Trencher, who’s now an associate professor at Kyoto University, tells IE that Monibot’s “extremely sensational” piece got him wondering if what the writer claimed was really true. The results of a new study prove the column's claim of greenwashing do carry weight.

Several researchers had already published work detailing the misinformation tactics that energy companies use to sew doubt about climate change and stall regulations to reduce carbon emissions. However, there’s far less empirical work comparing the public statements from big oil about clean energy efforts to actual evidence of clean energy efforts.

Trencher and his fellow research scientists set out to design an “objective... comprehensive, and long term [study] that would take into account the many different actions that would [collectively] indicate a shift toward clean energy."

They chose to focus on four of the largest energy companies: Chevron and ExxonMobil, which are based in the U.S., and Shell and BP, which are based in Europe.

“This very small number of companies has an extremely huge influence on the products that are produced and consumed by human society,” he tells IE. “The absolute scale of [their] production and distribution networks also means that they have a big responsibility for climate change."

Together, the four companies analyzed in the study account for 10 percent of the carbon that’s been released into the atmosphere since 1965, according to the authors.

The results of their study, which were published Wednesday in the academic journal PLOS One, show that Monibot wasn’t far off the mark in his Guardian column.

The companies are talking the talk

The researchers analyzed publicly available data that was released between 2009 and 2020. Their dataset was drawn from more than a hundred documents totaling “thousands or tens of thousands of pages," he says.

The researchers analyzed the companies’ annual reports to understand how they were presenting their approach to clean energy and decarbonization to the public, regulators, and shareholders. They scoured those documents for 39 terms associated with climate change, energy transition, emissions, and clean energy and developed a simple scoring system to standardize their data.

“It's the only approach we could think of that would be suitable to allowing a simple and objective comparison of [the companies’] discourse, pledges, and actions,” Trencher says.

“The idea was to commit ourselves to having a study that could be reproduced,” so we used “documents that other people could download and check for themselves,” he says.

After that, the researchers looked at a much wider range of documents to find evidence of any pledges the companies had made, any information about their energy transition they had publicly disclosed, and any actions they had reported taking to move toward renewable energy.

The annual reports used a simple scoring system to get a 30,000-foot view of how each company was portraying itself to the outside world.

It's harder to say if they're walking the walk

Figuring out what actions the companies were actually taking was a much bigger challenge. The researchers relied on financial performance data to infer as much as they could about critical business decisions, such as how each company was investing capital, how much money they made from fossil fuels versus renewable sources, and how much energy they were producing across their range of products.

That information wasn’t easy to get. Trencher says "most of the time, these figures are just completely missing from the annual reports."

“It’s extremely difficult to know... how much money's been spent"

“It’s extremely difficult to know... how much money's been spent, and when it was spent, and how that relates to objectives and pledges,” he says. The researchers had to turn to third-party sources of data, such as CDP, a nonprofit that collects oil and gas data to help investors, policymakers, and businesses to manage their environmental impact.

Another challenge was the lack of a widely accepted definition of “clean energy.” Does making the fossil fuel extraction process more efficient make the energy it produces “clean”? There’s no way to provide a good answer for that, Trencher says, because the industry hasn’t agreed on what the term actually means.

“There’s an urgent need for a definition that is accepted by society, and politicians and scientists that we can all sort of share,” he says.

A stark mismatch

Once the data was collected, the researchers found that there was, indeed, a stark mismatch between what the companies were promising and how they ran their businesses.

As a group, the companies invested less than two percent of their capital expenditures on renewable energy during the study period. Their data shows that two of the companies, Chevron and Shell, have actually increased the production of fossil fuels since 2015. BP increased production between 2015 and 2020.

While the companies generally presented themselves as increasingly more environmentally friendly over the course of the 2010s, they weren't shy about the fact that fossil fuel remains core to their business models — and that it will into the future. For instance, Shell wrote in its 2020 annual report, “[e]nding our activities in oil and gas too early when they are vital to meeting today’s energy demand would not help our customers or our shareholders.”

While Shell and BP have publicly stated they would reduce their investment in fossil fuel extraction, they’ve both recently increased the number of acres where they can legally search for and extract oil and gas.

Public policy seems to make a difference

Trencher acknowledges these companies face a huge task.

“I think, in their defense, the difficulty of transitioning from a fossil fuel-based business model to something completely different is extremely difficult... In all fairness, we have to be giving them a few years,” he says.

Of course, other researchers have turned up plenty of evidence that these companies have known about the harm their products caused for decades.

They’ve “wasted” a lot of time by “delaying action and denying the problem,” he says.

Trencher pointed to one bright spot in their findings: The results make it clear that a company’s social and regulatory environment does seem to make a difference.

The companies based in Europe, where social and political pressures are generally more progressive, “are much further ahead of the curve towards decarbonization than their American peers,” he says.

Shell, for instance, is one of the European companies that has made the most ambitious promises. Shell says it will exclusively “deliver carbon-free energy products in 2050," Trencher says. "In other words [Shell says it will] reduce carbon intensity by 100 percent."

Meeting that target will be “extremely tough,” but the company has also committed itself to interim targets that “can be tracked,” he says.

As it happens, Shell, which was the subject of Monbiot’s 2019 piece in The Guardian, was the only company to reply to IE’s request to comment for this story. A spokesperson says the company’s “target [to] become a net-zero emissions energy business by 2050” is in line with the goals of the 2015 Paris agreement.

The company also points out that its shareholders overwhelmingly passed the company’s energy transition strategy. Less than a year ago, Shell's board asked shareholders to vote against more ambitious emissions targets.

 

Abstract

The energy products of oil and gas majors have contributed significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and planetary warming over the past century. Decarbonizing the global economy by mid-century to avoid dangerous climate change thus cannot occur without a profound transformation of their fossil fuel-based business models. Recently, several majors are increasingly discussing clean energy and climate change, pledging decarbonization strategies, and investing in alternative energies. Some even claim to be transforming into clean energy companies. Given a history of obstructive climate actions and “greenwashing”, there is a need to objectively evaluate current and historical decarbonization efforts and investment behavior. This study focuses on two American (Chevron, ExxonMobil) and two European majors (BP, Shell). Using data collected over 2009–2020, we comparatively examine the extent of decarbonization and clean energy transition activity from three perspectives: (1) keyword use in annual reports (discourse); (2) business strategies (pledges and actions); and (3) production, expenditures and earnings for fossil fuels along with investments in clean energy (investments). We found a strong increase in discourse related to “climate”, “low-carbon” and “transition”, especially by BP and Shell. Similarly, we observed increasing tendencies toward strategies related to decarbonization and clean energy. But these are dominated by pledges rather than concrete actions. Moreover, the financial analysis reveals a continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy. 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. Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.

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