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Clean-energy pledges by fossil-fuel giants not reflected in investments

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Despite the public pledges and statements of Big Oil companies, there still remains a lack of any meaningful transition away from fossil fuels, a new study has demonstrated.

It is widely accepted that the energy products of major oil and gas companies have contributed significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and planetary warming over the past century. Decarbonising the global economy by the middle of this century to avoid dangerous climate change cannot occur without a profound transformation of these companies' fossil-fuel-based business models.

In response, some energy companies have expressed plans to transition from fossil fuels to clean alternatives, but previous research suggests limited progress.

A 12-year analysis of the companies BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell has revealed that their discourse and pledges related to transitioning to clean energy do not align with their business actions and investments. Mei Li and colleagues at Tohoku University, Japan, presented their findings in the open-access journal PLoS ONE this week.

To gain deeper insights into clean-energy transition activity, Li and colleagues conducted an analysis of four energy giants that are responsible for more than 10 per cent of carbon emissions worldwide since 1965: BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell. For each company they evaluated business strategies, financial data and keywords related to a clean-energy transition in annual reports.

The analysis revealed that, from 2009 to 2020, the companies’ annual reports contained increasing discourse related to the keywords 'climate', 'low-carbon' and 'transition', especially for BP and Shell. The chart below illustrates the increasing use of such wording. Business strategies showed movement toward decarbonisation and clean-energy models, but this progress was mostly in the form of pledges instead of concrete actions. Financial data indicated that all four corporations’ business models remain dependent on fossil fuels, with insignificant investment in clean energy.

Bar graph of Big Oil greenwash terminology - inline

Image credit: Li et al, 2022, PLOS ONE

The researchers concluded that none of the four oil companies cited are currently transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy and that accusations of misleading messaging – aka 'greenwashing' – by the companies appear well-founded.

Future research may help to confirm these findings, the researchers wrote, and explore the specific factors that underly the mismatch between companies’ discourse, actions and investments.

The authors added: “We thus conclude that the transition to clean-energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse.”

The research paper – 'The clean energy claims of BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil and Shell: A mismatch between discourse, actions and investments' – has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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