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With Fossils Making Net-Zero Promises, Not All Targets Are Equal

Most North American and European fossil producers have published voluntary carbon reduction commitments, but not all targets are equal, Pembina Institute Senior Analyst Benjamin Israël writes in a new analysis, the first of three looking at the future of oil in a decarbonized world.

A chart accompanying Israël’s blog post shows European fossils BP, Equinor, Repsol, Shell, and Total SA with more complete and detailed promises than their North American counterparts, with all of them committing to a 2050 deadline, addressing Scope 2 emissions, and at least partially acknowledging Scope 3 emissions from the eventual use of their products.

All of those plans have taken their share of criticism and second-guessing, as well. But by the Europeans’ standard, the announcements from Canadian tar sands/oil sands producers Cenovus Energy, Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. (CNRL), Husky Energy (since bought out by Cenovus), Imperial Oil, MEG Energy, and Suncor show up as consistently more spotty. They’re still far ahead of colossal fossil ExxonMobil, with no emission reduction targets at all, apart from an incomplete commitment from Canadian subsidiary Imperial Oil.

“Each pledge reflects a different level of commitment to net-zero operations,” Israël writes. “Some players are actively developing concrete plans with intermediate milestones; others have indicated their goal is ‘aspirational’ or have omitted timelines for their net-zero objectives.”

Significantly, “while European companies pledge to address emissions through the supply chain—with Scope 1 and 2 emissions being that associated with oil production, and Scope 3 emissions being those emitted when using refined petroleum products, say, in a vehicle—not a single Canadian oil major has committed to addressing all three.”

Israël’s post includes a helpful snapshot of the distinction between Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions, along with a link to a more detailed explanation. The difference matters, because “for most oil companies, upstream emissions account for approximately 20 to 30% of the full life cycle emissions associated with the production, processing, and use of refined petroleum products,” he explains. “Meanwhile, downstream emissions account for 70 to 80%.”

While some fossils have seen responsibility for downstream emissions as a “contentious issue”, Israël adds, “it is not unheard of in proposed responsible business principles. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), for example, is an international policy approach ‘under which producers are given a significant responsibility…for the treatment or disposal of post-consumer products’. An EPR approach applied to refined petroleum products would see oil companies claim responsibility for the downstream emissions of their products.”

For Canadian fossils, getting this right will be a matter of market survival as well as climate response, Israël says. “Responding to climate science, investors and governments are putting pressure on oil companies to adopt more ambitious climate targets that include downstream (consumer) emissions, and—more importantly—to develop credible plans with intermediate milestones to meet such targets,” he writes. “Along with costs, crude carbon intensity is expected to become a determinant metric of oil competitiveness as investors and governments call to accelerate the transformation of our energy systems.”