On Thursday, Shell released a pledge and rough plan to shrink its carbon footprint to net-zero by 2050 in an attempt to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
It said it will shift its business to produce more clean energy and more biofuels (which are problematic), and help its customers, like major airline companies, to decrease their carbon impacts. By 2035, it plans to reduce its net carbon footprint 30 percent by 2035 and 65 percent by 2050, offsetting the rest to get to net-zero. Sounds nice but it’s totally inadequate.
Does this mean Shell will halt all further drilling for fossil fuels? No, of course not. Shell says that “society will continue to need some energy products that create emissions for the foreseeable future.” Of course, the climate crisis, which fossil fuels have largely created, threatens the very existence of human society. But don’t worry—Shell will be focused on the good fossil fuel: natural gas!
As part of its announcement, the company called it “vital to building a sustainable energy future, especially in power generation.” It’s true that natural gas does emit less carbon than coal. But it still emits carbon. In 2019, it was the number one contributor to the growth in U.S. carbon emissions. When gas infrastructure leaks, it also emits methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon in terms of global heating. This is a huge problem—in fact, recent research found that energy firms are emitting 25 to 40 percent more methane than previously thought. Yet Shell’s new pledge makes no mention of the problem of methane emissions.
The plan to cut carbon emissions is pretty weak, too. The company plans to offset its own carbon emissions by trapping them with new carbon capture and storage technologies. Except those technologies haven’t been shown to work at scale. It also talks about using “natural solutions,” like tree planting, which is also not great.
Don’t get me wrong, trees are great, and tree planting will almost certainly play a role in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. But forest offset programs can also be horrifyingly unjust by displacing people from their homes in order to make room to plant. Plus, if Shell really cares about trees, shouldn’t it commit to stop drilling for oil in the Amazon rainforest—one of the world’s largest carbon sinks? Shell executives know all that drilling doesn’t go around the trees, right? Those trees get chopped down, destroying the homes of indigenous communities and rich, biodiverse ecosystems in the process.
The company’s new climate pledge also explicitly excludes its “chemical” business, which is a sly way of ignoring all the plastic made from fossil fuel byproducts. Energy giants such as Shell are ramping up their plastic production. If growth trends continue, by 2050, plastic will make up 20 percent of the world’s oil consumption, and conservative predictions show that plastic production and incineration will produce some 600 coal plants-worth of greenhouses gases. Not including plastic in its plan to get to net-zero is a huge oversight.
There’s a less complicated way for other oil companies to cut their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. If Shell really wants to become environmentally sustainable, they could simply stop producing fossil-based energy. It is the single most important way we can draw down global carbon emissions. Shell executives, once y’all are ready to do that—even if it hurts your bottom line—then we can talk.