ourEconomy: Opinion

The future according to Shell: 'net zero' through fossil fuel expansion

If you follow the money rather than the rhetoric, it’s clear that Shell intends to profit from oil and gas production for as long as possible.

Belén Balanyá
19 May 2020, 11.54am
'Shell must fall' protest, Amsterdam, January 2020
Pro Shots Photo Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images

'Despite what a lot of activists say, it is entirely legitimate to invest in oil and gas because the world demands it' – Ben van Beurden, Shell CEO.

On 19th May 2020, Shell is hosting its Annual General Meeting (AGM) at its headquarters in The Hague, while socially distanced protesters gather outside. For the first time since the Second World War, Shell has cut its dividends (by two-thirds), as the pandemic has sent oil companies into crisis mode, with plummeting demand, unprecedented price crashes and a gloomy uncertainty over their future. This comes in addition to the growing tarnishing of Shell’s social license to operate, as mounting pressure demands strong action on the climate emergency, and several court cases challenge the company’s track record.

Shell, meanwhile, is trying to sell us a ‘sustainable future’, hoping to distract from the reality that the company bears a significant share of the responsibility for climate change and has a troubled human rights record.

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As far back as 1988 Shell’s own research showed that it was responsible for 4 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and that it knew even then that these were causing climate change. Yet the company doubled down on oil and gas investment. Not just that, it also tried to mislead the world by supporting climate denialism – investigative journalists earlier this year revealed that Shell paid a Dutch climate denier to mount a campaign against climate science. The company’s long record of human rights abuses and environmental destruction – especially in the Niger Delta – is also well documented.

By contrast, Shell acts as if the future is a clean slate, free of reminders of the company’s dodgy past. The company increasingly talks of low-carbon scenarios, and last month it promised to become a net-zero emissions company by 2050.

Shell has extremely deep pockets to promote its greenwashed future vision, not only to the public, but also to policy-makers. In 2019 alone it spent over €4.5 million on EU lobbying. Along with the ten lobby groups it declares to be a member of, it has spent over €215 million since 2010 buying influence at the heart of the EU.

Shell's promises are a textbook case of hypocrisy: the company plans (or at least it did before the coronavirus crisis) to develop more than 35 new oil and gas projects by 2025, even though there is no plausible scenario for addressing climate change that allows for fossil fuel expansion on this scale.

But that is not all. When Shell talks about an 'energy transition' and promises to be a 'net-zero' company, this reflects not just greenwashing, but also the company’s attempts to mould the future in its own image. Shell’s envisioned future is one where gas plays a significant, long-term role, and the lifespan of oil wells is extended through unfeasible, unproven and eye-wateringly expensive “carbon capture and storage” (CCS) technology. Public policy should also avoid regulation beyond setting a price on carbon, while international negotiations should ensure that remaining greenhouse gas emissions miraculously disappear through 'net zero' accounting.

Back at the landmark climate change negotiations in Copenhagen over a decade ago, Shell’s slogan was 'we’ll need to think the impossible is possible'. The company has continued to live by this ever since! This is not a sustainable future. It ignores the fact that gas is as bad as, or worse than, other fossil fuels. Burning more gas would take the world far beyond safe climate limits.

Shell’s vision assumes that fossil fuels can be decarbonised by capturing carbon dioxide emissions and storing them underground or underwater. This is not only dangerous but fanciful, being based on the assumption that 10,000 CCS facilities will be available by 2070. Currently, despite considerable hype and government subsidies, there are just 51 CCS plants globally, many of which are small-scale. A big problem with CCS (apart from the fact it feeds the idea that we can keep burning fossil fuels) is that it is 'wildly expensive' while, at the same time, renewable energy is rapidly falling in cost.

Carbon trading, another of Shell’s ‘tools’ to achieve net-zero, has been opposed by climate justice activists for the last two decades, and is linked to 'offset' schemes that shift the burden of pollution reduction onto poorer people. Shell’s support for carbon pricing should not be confused with climate ambition – this enthusiasm is actually because carbon pricing benefits the company’s core gas business. It helps gas to out-compete coal and undermines the case for other regulations, targets or renewable energy subsidies.

Finally, the latest addition to Shell’s false ‘solutions’ toolbox is the concept of 'nature-based solutions'. This is a new name for an old idea: promoting forestry (and other land use) projects as an 'offset' for continued fossil fuel use. The carbon absorbed by forests is counted and 'credits' are issued for supposed emissions savings, which can be used by Shell to justify continued extraction, refining and sale of oil and gas. This is a very risky business for the local communities that find themselves displaced by land grabs for such lucrative offsetting projects.

The reality, behind all this rhetoric, is that Shell is Europe’s biggest oil and gas company, and intends to remain so. Before the yet unknown impact of the coronavirus crisis, Shell was forecast to increase output by 38% by 2030, increasing its crude oil production by more than half and its gas production by over a quarter. Shell’s 'growth priorities' are in deep-water oil exploration and the chemicals sector. If you follow the money rather than the company’s words, it is clear that Shell intends to continue profiting from oil and gas production for as long as possible.

Shell’s climate rhetoric is designed to signal that it is the cleanest of the big oil companies. Even if that were true, which it is not, it is like claiming to make the healthiest cigarettes. In the end, they still kill you!

The tobacco analogy is far from arbitrary. In 2003, the World Health Organization acted to protect policy-making from the influence of the tobacco lobby, obliging governments to limit interactions with the tobacco industry. It is high time for the world to adopt the same approach to the fossil fuel industry. We must kick Shell and other big polluters out of the conference halls where climate policy is negotiated, and out of the EU institutions and national capitals. This would finally clear one major obstacle to taking the action urgently needed to avert climate crisis. We need Fossil Free Politics before it’s too late!

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