Colossal fossil Royal Dutch Shell is taking criticism from all sides for its latest attempt at a decarbonization strategy, with fossil-friendly investors driving its share price down 2% after last week’s announcement while climate campaigners declare the plan “grotesque” and “delusional”.
Shell had previously announced a 30 to 40% reduction in its oil and gas production investments, but still faced mass resignations late last year from clean energy executives who’d become disillusioned with its commitment to real carbon reductions. The latest version of the plan commits to a version of net-zero emissions by 2050, ties executive pay to the company’s net carbon intensity, and makes Shell the first big fossil to seek a shareholder vote on its energy transition plan, MarketWatch reports.
But the company only promises to cut oil production 1% to 2% per year—and to hit that target through a combination of divestments and “natural decline”, which means some of its properties could stay in production (or eventually become abandoned wells) under new owners. “It also will reduce its refinery footprint and production of traditional fuels by 55% by 2030, while ramping up its electric vehicle charge points network, extend its biofuels production and distribution, and develop hydrogen hubs,” the industry newsletter states.
But it’ll still spend just US$5 to $6 billion per year to expand its renewable energy business—DeSmog Blog says $2 to $3 billion in the short term—compared to $8 billion on “upstream” oil activities and $8 to $9 billion per year on a “transition” portfolio that is heavy on fossil gas and petrochemicals. Shell’s oil exploration and production will “generate the cash and returns needed to fund shareholder distributions while accelerating investment in the growth businesses to capture new market opportunities,” the company said.
MarketWatch says Shell stock has outperformed BP’s over the last year—but that’s because Shell’s share value fell only 34%, compared to 44% for its industry rival.
But if investors accustomed to a viable fossil industry are skittish about Shell’s plans, “environmentalists claim Shell’s approach requires a continued reliance on fossil fuels, as well as a ‘delusional’ reliance on nature-based solutions to reach decarbonization,” DeSmog writes.
The plan does have its supporters—DeSmog says they’re pointing to Shell’s new targets for Scope 3 emissions, and its promise to give shareholders more transparency about its future intentions. “Today’s plan is certainly a transformation. The question is can they afford it,” said Warwick Business School professor David Elmes, adding that the plan “ticks all the boxes” for a fossil aiming to diversify into other forms of energy.
“When BP launched their new strategy recently, a discussion among shareholders was, can they earn enough profits to invest in the changes while keeping investors happy with dividends,” Elmes explained. “It’s that level of detail that Shell needs to provide.”
But those details are landing Shell in hot water with climate analysts who know what to look for in a real carbon reduction plan—and are alarmed at what they see.
“The oil firm’s strategy also involves buying an additional 25 million tonnes a year in controversial carbon capture and storage (CCS) capacity by 2035, in addition to 4.5 million tonnes already at the operational or planning stage,” DeSmog writes. “Shell has also said it would expand its delivery of liquified natural gas (LNG) by seven million tonnes a year until 2025, while promising customers the option of ‘carbon-neutral’ LNG to help with their own carbon footprints through offsetting. Shell already gives its business customers the option of offsetting natural gas emissions through buying voluntary carbon credits from ‘nature-based products around the world’.”
That had Mel Evans, head of Greenpeace UK’s oil campaign, warning that “Shell’s grotesque ‘customer first’ strategy seeks to blame customers first for climate change.”
“Meanwhile Shell, the powerful oil major, brazenly says it will dodge oil production cuts and will simply let output dwindle,” Evans said. But “without commitments to reduce absolute emissions by making actual oil production cuts, this new strategy can’t succeed nor can it be taken seriously.”
Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Rachel Kennerly told DeSmog that Shell was using “smoke and mirrors” in its updated plan.
“There’s one way to stop climate breakdown, and it’s to leave coal, oil, and gas where they are and ramp up investment in renewables,” she told DeSmog. “It’s no surprise that Shell wants a business-as-usual model,” but that only makes it clear that governments “must set high standards and strict laws” to hold off a “Wild West for extractive companies, now with added green spin.”
Shell’s strategy hinges on plans to plant a new forest the size of Brazil to match up with a 1.5°C climate stabilization target. DeSmog says the colossal fossil already buys millions of tonnes’ worth of forest offsets per year in countries like Peru and Indonesia, and “intends to offset emissions of around 120 million tonnes a year by 2030 through buying independently verified carbon credits.”
But those targets rely on “highly questionable practices,” said Global Forest Coalition Climate Campaign Coordinator Coraina de la Plaza. “Shell’s ‘comprehensive carbon management approach’ is yet another proof of the little interest that this polluting company has to reduce its emissions,” she told DeSmog.
“Natural climate solution concepts are easily twisted by companies and used to falsely brand highly questionable practices such as offsets as ‘green’, and a false way to address the climate crisis,” she added. But “afforestation and reforestation are often based on vast areas of commercial monoculture tree plantations” that lead to “devastating impacts on communities, biodiversity, and the environment,” and “can easily be at the forefront of these so-called NBS to offset the carbon that companies like Shell plan to keep pumping back into the atmosphere.”