“Quite Divorced From Reality”: Climate Scientist, Activists Call Out Shell Exec at UN Conference

The oil company is posing as a climate champion, but critics call it greenwashing.

Christine MacDonaldDecember 5, 2019

Shell Oil is trying to position itself as a climate warrior. Activists aren't having it. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

MADRID — A few dozen activists had packed a cramped meet­ing room at the UN cli­mate nego­ti­a­tions, where exec­u­tives from Shell Oil, Chevron and BP were to speak about their plans to tack­le car­bon emis­sions. Just as Shell exec­u­tive Dun­can van Bergen took the mic, the activists stood up solemn­ly and put their hands over their ears, slow­ly fil­ing out of the room in protest of what they saw as false solutions.

"We need to stop Shell, we need to kick polluters out and we need real climate solutions.”

Van Bergen was talk­ing about the company’s high-pro­file but con­tro­ver­sial new ini­tia­tives to invest in nat­ur­al ecosys­tems to help reduce its own car­bon foot­print and that of its cus­tomers. The com­pa­ny has also signed on to a new mar­kets for nat­ur­al cli­mate solu­tions,” spear­head­ed by the Inter­na­tion­al Emis­sions Trad­ing Asso­ci­a­tion (IETA), a trade asso­ci­a­tion rep­re­sent­ing many of the world’s biggest pol­luters (includ­ing the three afore­men­tioned oil giants).

The plan is for IETA, togeth­er with its part­ner com­pa­nies, to cre­ate glob­al mar­kets to trade car­bon cred­its (rep­re­sent­ing emis­sion sav­ings) gen­er­at­ed from forestry, sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture and oth­er projects, akin to the way stocks or oth­er finan­cial instru­ments trade on finan­cial mar­kets. Once cre­at­ed, the cred­its can be bought, sold or trad­ed by com­pa­nies, gov­ern­ments and oth­er investors, cre­at­ing new rev­enue streams for com­pa­nies trad­ing in the cred­its. Car­bon mar­ket­places like this are expect­ed to become increas­ing­ly lucra­tive if the Paris Accord can boost investor con­fi­dence (thus far lag­ging) through, among oth­er mea­sures, estab­lish­ing strong and trans­par­ent rules to ensure that the projects that under­pin the cred­its actu­al­ly remove the stat­ed tons of car­bon diox­ide from the atmos­phere, and estab­lish­ing strin­gent car­bon account­ing rules to elim­i­nate dou­ble counting.

Crit­ics, how­ev­er, denounced the new car­bon trad­ing plans as just the lat­est addi­tions to Big Oil’s long his­to­ry of mis­lead­ing state­ments and out­right green­wash­ing when it comes to cli­mate change, an attempt to pad com­pa­nies’ prof­its while avoid­ing oth­er, more strin­gent forms of emis­sions reductions.

As the activists walked out, van Bergen respond­ed to their silent rebuke: We believe that nature has a role to play, not instead of but in addi­tion to. A lot of hard work needs to hap­pen to decar­bonize ener­gy, trans­porta­tion, agri­cul­ture, and oth­er sec­tors of the econ­o­my, and that work will require a lot of investment.”

While pro-busi­ness atten­dees applaud­ed van Bergen when he lat­er left the event, not every­one was impressed. This is quite divorced from real­i­ty, what you are all dis­cussing,” Simon Lewis, a cli­mate sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don, told the oil exec­u­tives dur­ing a Q+A. Lewis went on to explain to the audi­ence that even if pol­luters invest­ed in every nature con­ser­va­tion, sus­tain­abil­i­ty agri­cul­ture or oth­er nat­ur­al cli­mate solu­tion” in the world, those projects would only off­set about 20% of glob­al green­house gas emis­sions; the vast major­i­ty of cuts would still have to come about through actu­al reduc­tions in fos­sil fuel use. Giv­en this, Lewis asked them to explain how the ini­tia­tive was any dif­fer­ent from oth­er cor­po­rate schemes put forth in past decades — good PR that doesn’t actu­al­ly tack­le the problem.

In addi­tion, car­bon off­set trad­ing — which has been going on at small­er scales for decades — is no sil­ver bul­let. It has had mixed results to date, includ­ing failed projects, out­right fraud, and human rights abus­es against rur­al, indige­nous and oth­er vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, prompt­ing fierce oppo­si­tion from grass­roots cli­mate orga­ni­za­tions against includ­ing car­bon trad­ing in the Paris Accord. The car­bon trad­ing ques­tion is one of the remain­ing thorny issues coun­try nego­tia­tors are sup­posed to iron out dur­ing this two-week cli­mate con­fer­ence, which ends Decem­ber 13. The rules for such mar­ket-based solu­tions” (includ­ed in what is tech­ni­cal­ly known as Arti­cle 6 of Paris Agree­ment) were sup­posed to be decid­ed at last year’s meet­ing, but coun­tries remain far apart; in fact, some observers won­der if it won’t be punt­ed off again until next year.

Mean­while, the oil majors have yet to unveil a plan for reduc­ing their own com­pa­ny emis­sions in line with the Paris Agree­ment, which calls for dra­mat­i­cal­ly reduc­ing fos­sil fuel use to pre­vent cli­mate catastrophe.

In 2019, to hear rep­re­sen­ta­tives of some of the world’s biggest fos­sil fuel com­pa­nies intro­duce dis­cus­sions about deal­ing with emis­sions and not men­tion … their own plans to get their emis­sions down to net-zero — shock­ing,” Lewis told In These Times after the event.

The Thurs­day after­noon side event is one of hun­dreds tak­ing place at the UN cli­mate sum­mit, as del­e­gates rep­re­sent­ing gov­ern­ments around the world nego­ti­ate final rules for car­bon trad­ing and oth­er issues that are expect­ed to define whether the Unit­ed Nations’ process, now in its 25th year, suc­cess­ful­ly sets the world on a path toward head­ing off the worst impacts of cli­mate change.

Sci­en­tists say this can only be done by keep­ing much of remain­ing fos­sil fuel reserves in the ground and tran­si­tion­ing swift­ly to clean and renew­able ener­gy. To date, though, the oil majors have pre­ferred to make vast­ly less sig­nif­i­cant and expen­sive cli­mate change invest­ments. Some — like the new mar­ket­place unveiled Thurs­day — could con­ve­nient­ly even increase their profits.

In addi­tion, this year Shell made a $300 mil­lion dol­lar green invest­ment promise, going for the man­tel of good cor­po­rate cit­i­zen BP once strove for. When Shell rolled out the ini­tia­tive last April, The Nature Con­ser­van­cy CEO pro­claimed the com­pa­ny the first in the indus­try to set near-term tar­gets for the emis­sions of both its oper­a­tions and its prod­ucts.” The new IETA mar­ket­place ini­tia­tive has mem­bers of busi­ness-friend­ly nature con­ser­va­tion groups Con­ser­va­tion Inter­na­tion­al, Envi­ron­men­tal Defense Fund and The Nature Con­ser­van­cy on its advi­so­ry board.

But Shell, like the oth­er oil majors, has a busi­ness mod­el that relies on extract­ing fos­sil fuels and pump­ing green­house gas­es into the atmos­phere. The five largest pub­licly trad­ed oil and gas majors (Exxon­Mo­bil, Roy­al Dutch Shell, Chevron, BP and Total) have invest­ed a com­bined total of more than $1 bil­lion in recent years on mis­lead­ing cli­mate-relat­ed brand­ing and lob­by­ing, accord­ing Influ​enceMap​.org.

Some of the $300 mil­lion Shell has promised over the next three years may very well ben­e­fit ecosys­tems, bio­di­ver­si­ty and local com­mu­ni­ties. But the invest­ments will only bring down the company’s net car­bon foot­print by 3%, at best. And the com­pa­ny is plan­ning to get a lit­tle help from its cus­tomers, giv­en the option to pay a bit more when they fill up their gas tanks to off­set their own emis­sions — a scheme Lewis char­ac­ter­ized as greenwashing.

Social jus­tice and indige­nous rights activists who have flocked to the UN cli­mate talks as inde­pen­dent observers are lob­by­ing hard for the exclu­sion of car­bon trad­ing from the Paris Accord, though there is no indi­ca­tion that their views have swayed negotiators.

When Shell is boast­ing that car­bon mar­kets are part of the Paris Agree­ment in part thanks to its lob­by­ing, you know some­thing is off,” Nine de Pater, who co-orga­nized the action, said in a state­ment. The likes of Shell have no plans to reduce emis­sions in line with 1.5°C, and car­bon mar­kets allow them to buy cred­its and con­tin­ue busi­ness as usu­al. We need to stop Shell, we need to kick pol­luters out and we need real cli­mate solutions.”

Ear­li­er Thurs­day, cli­mate jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions includ­ing Friends of the Earth Inter­na­tion­al, Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work, La Via Campesina, Asia People’s Move­ment on Debt and Devel­op­ment, It Takes Roots, Sus­tai­nUS, Cor­po­rate Account­abil­i­ty Inter­na­tion­al, and sev­er­al oth­ers kicked off a day of protest against mar­ket solu­tions like the new IETA initiative.

Activists vowed to con­tin­ue the fight against com­mod­i­fy­ing the Earth. They say the sky is not for sale. Sev­er­al of the same groups also released a peti­tion Thurs­day demand­ing that car­bon mar­kets not be includ­ing the so-called Paris Rule­book, which will gov­ern how coun­tries ful­fill their pledges to bring down their country’s emissions.

Tom Gold­tooth of the Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work called for an end of CO2 colo­nial­ism and reject­ed trad­ing schemes. The Paris Agree­ment is full of mar­ket-based solu­tions … that are not solu­tions,” he said. It’s a false solution.”

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.
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