Colossal fossils ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, and BP are greenwashing their promises of a clean energy transition, according to peer-reviewed research published this week in the journal PLOS One.
The four companies alone account for 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965, The Guardian reports. And the study concludes that their increasing use of the terms “climate”, “low-carbon”, and “transition” was only rarely matched by concrete action.
“We observed increasing tendencies toward strategies related to decarbonization and clean energy,” the researchers write. “But these are dominated by pledges rather than concrete actions,” and “the financial analysis reveals a continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy.”
The research team concludes 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 behaviour are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.”
The study team of Gregory Trencher of Kyoto University and Mei Li and Jusen Asuka of Tohoku University assessed the companies’ clean energy strategies, pledges, business models, and plans, then analysed financial performance data in their annual reports. Their review included factors like capital expenditure on oil and gas production, the degree to which their earnings depended on fossil fuels, daily oil and gas production, and their estimated fossil reserves.
While all the companies but Chevron bought into the language of energy transition, their actions were sporadic and their commitments were deeply limited.
“Our findings of a mismatch between words, actions, and investments prompt a need to understand the factors that incite the majors to talk about the energy transition rather than pursue it,” the researchers write. “Green discourse and pledges”, they say, can produce a positive image, dial down public pressure for real emission cuts, and “prolong the social licence to operate, providing valuable time for the majors to continue their core fossil fuel business.”
But when it comes to changing their actual practices, “large investments in renewables are generally less profitable for the majors than traditional core businesses, and such activities place them in competition with specialized players,” they add. “Moreover, any shift away from traditional businesses that are currently profitable will initiate an irreversible process of writing down the value of existing fossil fuels assets and reserves, carrying significant consequences for share prices” and making it profitable for the companies to slow-walk the transition at every turn.
“Until there is very concrete progress, we have every reason to be very skeptical about claims to be moving in a green direction,” Trencher told The Guardian.
“If they were moving away from fossil fuels we would expect to see, for example, declines in exploration activity, fossil fuel production, and sales and profit from fossil fuels,” he explained. “But if anything, we find evidence of the reverse happening.”
While the colossal fossils’ latest climate promises “look very nice and they’re getting a lot of people excited,” Trencher added, “we have to put these in the context of company history of actions.” He compared the companies to “a very naughty schoolboy telling the teacher ‘I promise to do all my homework next week’, but the student has never worked hard.”