I don’t mean to rain emissions on the parade of good climate-crisis news, but all is not as it appears.
The big news stateside was ExxonMobil shareholders voting, against management, to seat at least three directors nominated by a small hedge fund. (Tallying for a final seat remained under way late this week.)
The fund, Engine No. 1, which waged a proxy fight since late last year, says the company’s emphasis on fossil fuels puts it at “existential risk.”
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, said, “This is a watershed moment for the oil and gas industry. It’s no longer tenable for companies like ExxonMobil to defy calls to align their businesses with decarbonizing the economy.”
An even more significant victory came in the Netherlands, where a court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its carbon emissions by a net 45% by 2030 compared with 2019. The court said Shell “has complete freedom in how it meets its reduction obligation and in shaping the Shell group’s corporate policy.”
Kate Raworth, an economist at Oxford University, told The New York Times that the Shell decision is “a social tipping point for a fossil-fuels future.” Observers expect similar lawsuits against other members of Big Oil to follow.
Also, a large majority of Chevron shareholders approved a resolution requiring the company to “substantially reduce” at least one class of its emissions.
To cap the run of news, the Biden administration this week reversed a Trump policy, halting oil and gas drilling in the environmentally sensitive Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Climate advocates celebrated all this as a breakthrough moment, and maybe it is. We have little time to slow and reverse the pumping of carbon emissions into the atmosphere before we reach a point of planetary peril.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) warns that all new oil and gas exploration projects must stop to hit “net zero” emissions by 2050. Net zero is a popular consensus point: Balance the emissions burned into the atmosphere by absorbing an equivalent amount. Businesses and governments have bought into the concept.
Net zero is sold as essential to meeting the Paris accords target of limiting global warming to a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.
Unfortunately, OPEC and Russia are more influential for the future of carbon emissions than the U.S. and Western European oil majors. And these countries are drilling, producing, exporting and burning like it’s 1999, or 1899. Meanwhile, in Mexico — not an OPEC member — President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is committed to reviving the state-owned Pemex oil company. He’s building, buying or ramping up refineries.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s oil superpower, is also the largest emitter of carbon. Paradoxically, the kingdom is especially vulnerable to climate change, being in a desert with limited water supplies and facing rising temperatures. (It cuts both ways for Russia, too, which has experienced record temperatures and wildfires in Siberia.)
Yet the Saudis have a long history of obstructing climate progress, despite paying lip service to net zero.
Crude prices are rising along with demand, as much of the world reopens from the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the top emitters of methane, a particularly powerful gas behind global warming, are companies you’ve never heard of, and they mostly escape public attention.
Also, despite real and (misleading) “greenwashing” promises by nations and companies, CO2 emissions have risen by a startling 60% since 1992, when the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed.
The big picture, then, is mixed.
Still, the momentum toward addressing climate change appears strong. The IEA’s Net Zero By 2050 report, released in May, provides an important road map. It lays out 400 actions that must be taken over the next 30 years.
They are ambitious and daunting. For example, clean-energy sources must increase sharply. Getting to net zero emissions will require the “equivalent to installing the world’s current largest solar park roughly every day.”
Other items on that agenda: From 2030 on, 10 heavy industrial plants must be equipped with carbon-capture technology every month. Hydrogen will play a big role in the shift away from oil, natural gas and coal.
Electric vehicles must rise to 60% of the world’s sales, compared with 4.6% now. “Consumer choices” are important, the IEA notes, from buying electric vehicles to taking trains rather than airliners (and by 2045, it envisions planes using advanced biofuels and synthetic fuels).
Achieving the IEA goals will require massive investment: $4 trillion by 2030. But, the report says, “This will create millions of new jobs, significantly lift global economic growth, and achieve universal access to electricity and clean cooking worldwide by the end of the decade.”
Net zero faces pushback and has divided climate scientists.
Robert Watson, a former chair of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and two co-authors called net zero a fantasy, based on wishful thinking, false premises and technology that doesn’t exist.
They write that net zero is “a great idea, in principle.” But it “helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.”
To critics, net zero allows fossil-fuel extraction and burning to continue pretty much at status quo. They don’t buy the claim that forests, wetlands and other natural “sinks” can offset these emissions. For one thing, rising temperatures are causing forest fires and infesting trees with parasites that put them at risk.
Watson wrote, “The youth of today and future generations will look back in horror that our generation gambled with catastrophic changes in climate and biodiversity for the sake of cheap fossil-fuel energy when cost-effective and socially acceptable alternatives were available.”
This debate is important and we need to get it right. But we’re no longer arguing over whether climate change is real and human-caused. The science is settled; “deniers” are an increasingly marginalized fringe. From big companies to the Pentagon, leading institutions are taking the dangers — and costs — of unaddressed climate change dead seriously.
The future lies beyond the recent ExxonMobil and Shell shellackings.
As Churchill said in a different context, they are not the beginning of the end but perhaps they are the end of the beginning. Now the battle to literally save the planet is on and undeniable.