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.
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 InfluenceMap.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.”
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Christine MacDonald is an investigative reporter and author, whose work focuses climate change, environmental sustainability and greenwashing. She was a 2019-2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.