Slippery Business: Oil Companies and Their Climate Commitments

image shows powerplants pumping out smog
Alice Nott

Many oil companies such as Shell have been blamed for climate change, with energy being the biggest contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions. However, with mounting pressure many of these companies have made commitments to reduce their carbon output and even go carbon neutral. But should we trust these promises?

Shell has committed to becoming a carbon neutral business by 2050, they say in line with the targets laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement (agreed at COP21). They say they will do this by reducing their own emissions and “capturing and storing any remaining emissions using technology or balancing them with offsets”.

So, what is carbon capture?

It is a method by which carbon is stripped from the air

Put simply it is a method by which carbon is stripped from the air, preventing more from being released by factories, or even removing carbon dioxide already in the air. I know what you’re thinking, if we can do this why can’t we just remove the carbon from the air like a vacuum?

This unfortunately is not possible at this stage with only 21 large scale carbon capture sites around the globe mostly due to the share cost of the materials needed to create and maintain such as operation.

Such technologies are coming 30-40 years too late

Whilst it may be a necessary part of the solution there needs to be much more research into this technology by Scientists. It is arguably a little late in the day to be having this conversation with Lackner, a scientist from Arizona State University saying that conversations about such technologies are coming 30-40 years too late.

This is not to say that Shell has not funded academic research in fact Shell put £60 million into funding Russel Group Universities between 2015-2020. The top recipient being Imperial College London (£30 million) followed by the University of Leeds, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cambridge.

this funding did not go to Carbon Capture technologies

However, this funding did not go to Carbon Capture technologies but earth science departments, with many of these departments looking at new ways to extract fossil fuels. This research may seem to go against Shell’s apparent commitment to reducing their emissions output.

There is also the question as to whether Shell will commit to this target as it is not binding. If you scroll to the bottom of the page on their target to go carbon neutral by 2050 you reach a ‘Legal Disclaimer’. In which they make clear “There are a number of factors that could affect the future operations of Royal Dutch Shell and could cause those results to differ materially from those expressed in the forward-looking statements included in this content.”

There is still hope (well maybe) as a Dutch Court ruled in May that Shell must do more to cut it’s carbon emissions; “The judgment, which specifies that Shell should reduce its emissions by 45 per cent by 2030, is immediately enforceable.” However, this only relates to Shell’s direct emissions, which makes up 41% of its total emissions, meaning overall this cut it much closer to 18% cut, which whilst significant may not be enough.

Court in the Netherlands has set a precedent that companies, even multinational ones owe a ‘Duty of Care’

However, the Court in the Netherlands has set a precedent that companies, even multinational ones owe a ‘Duty of Care’. This decision is seen to have influenced an Australian court ruling that the Prime Minister owes a Duty of Care to the younger generation when it comes to climate, and with ‘Well-Being of Future Generations Bill’ being proposed in the UK (and law in Wales) it looks like this precedent is here to stay.

Even so, Shell is set to appeal the Court’s decision on the basis they are still supplying a product people want and need. So, whilst there is room to be hopeful it is only with a voice raising the alarm and showing that our generation won’t see our future burnt away that we can hope for proper Climate Action.

Alice Nott

Featured image courtesy of Ella Ivanescu via Unsplash. Image license found here.

This article was part of Impact Nottingham’s COP26 series for more articles on the conference check out the link here.

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