Oil companies’ climate promises are nothing but hot air

In an increasingly climate-aware world, oil companies know that they are staring down an uncertain future. The urgency of sweeping industry change has finally reached the boardrooms of these energy giants, and under mounting pressure they have universally pledged to reform practices and take the first steps towards a clean energy future.

But these promises are nothing more than greenwashing, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE.

Scrutinising 12 years of discourse on clean energy from the companies BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell, researchers found that none of the four companies took any meaningful action towards a low-carbon transition in the period 2009 to 2020.

The analysis evaluated business strategies, financial data and annual reports, tracking keywords related to a clean energy future such as “climate”, “low-carbon” and “transition”.

Taken at face value, the rhetoric emerging from these companies seems encouraging. For all companies, but particularly BP and Shell, the use of these energy buzzwords increased through time in line with mounting societal angst regarding climate. Business strategies also showed movement, at least on paper, towards decarbonisation and clean-energy models.

But in fact none of the four companies moved out of the realm of lofty pledges and into that of concrete actions. Financial data indicated that all four corporations’ business models remain dependent on fossil fuels, with insignificant investment devoted to clean energy.

Fig 3 1
(a) Total scores for pledges (b) Total scores for actions. Results indicate that for all companies, scores are considerably higher for pledges and actions (the highest possible score for pledges is 14 and 11 for actions). The companies are pledging a transition to clean energy and setting targets more than they are making concrete actions. The laggard status of the US companies, Chevron and ExxonMobil, is clearly visible on graph (b). Credit: Li et al., 2022, PLOS ONE.

The analysis reveals a deeply troubling insight. Despite their clear desire to overhaul their image, oil companies are not on track to shift their investments as rapidly as the planet requires. Recent modelling indicates that, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, net worldwide carbon dioxide emissions must reach zero by 2050. As significant contributors of greenhouse gas emissions, big oil companies will undoubtedly exert an immense influence over our success or failure in meeting this goal.

Big oil companies have faced plenty of scepticism over their new green image, and this confirmation that accusations of misleading messaging are well-founded will do little to bolster public confidence.

The researchers believe this is an important avenue of further investigation, and say that their next steps will involve exploring the specific factors that underlie the mismatch between companies’ discourse, actions and investments.

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