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Do all roads lead to Paris?

Comparing pathways to net-zero by BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil

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A Correction to this article was published on 11 July 2023

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Abstract

Many oil majors have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 while transitioning to clean energy. While achieving this requires transformative actions like downscaling hydrocarbon production, offsetting emissions with carbon credits is rapidly mainstreaming as a shortcut to decarbonisation. Although abundant research has contested the climate benefits of offsets, scholarship on oil majors’ climate actions has not examined their offsetting activity. We therefore focus on the world’s largest publicly traded majors — BP, Shell, Chevron and ExxonMobil — to examine if their net-zero strategies reflect a shift away from fossil fuels and to assess their offsetting behaviour. We firstly use three indicators to examine (i) the scope of emissions covered, (ii) plans to scale down fossil-fuel production and (iii) reliance on offsets. We then leverage a novel dataset built from company and third-party documents, along with offset-registry data, to assess what offsets are used and how these link to core business activities. Results show that no major’s decarbonisation pathway encompasses a business-model transformation away from fossil fuels. This is evidenced by missing plans to curb the production and sales of hydrocarbons and by a reliance on offsets to reach net-zero emissions and to decarbonise energy products. Moreover, results point to questionable climate benefits for offsets, since most derive from historically implemented emissions-avoidance projects that do not physically remove atmospheric carbon in the present. These findings challenge the appropriateness of claims about ‘carbon-neutral’ hydrocarbons, showing how net-zero strategies omit the urgent task of curbing the supply of fossil fuels to the global market.

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Data availability

The datasets generated and analysed during this study are available in the supplementary information.

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Notes

  1. This study uses the terms ‘carbon credits’, ‘offset credits’ and ‘offsets’ interchangeably.

  2. Scope 1 covers emissions from sources that an organisation owns or controls directly. Scope 2 emissions are caused indirectly via energy purchased from other parties (e.g. grid electricity purchased for use in oil refineries). Scope 3 encompasses emissions that arise not from the company’s operations but from its products when used by end consumers. For the oil industry, this refers to emissions that result from the end-use combustion of the hydrocarbon products it sells.

  3. All dollar units herein are US.

  4. The authors’ calculation for the year 2021, based on Rathi et al. (2022) and BP’s and Shell’s responses to the Climate Change survey by the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

  5. Organised by the non-profit body CDP, these questionnaires are a voluntary means by which companies disclose climate-related information to stakeholders and investors. Responses were available only for BP and Shell, since Chevron and ExxonMobil do not participate in this survey.

  6. Being a voluntary market, disclosure to the public about the offset projects used and the volume of their retirements made is not mandatory. Instead, it is desirable from the perspective of transparency and good practice.

  7. The start year of the first crediting period captures the time when activities that created carbon reductions or avoidance began (e.g. the year the first tree was planted, in the case of an afforestation project).

  8. When retiring offsets from publicly disclosed carbon offset registries, the retiree (or beneficiary) can choose to either disclose or conceal their name and the reasons for retirement (see Supplementary Information 2 Table 1). In cases where a major does not list its name in connection to a specific credit retirement, it is unclear whether this is done to escape public scrutiny or because credits were purchased via intermediaries, procured directly from self-developed projects, or provided to customers.

  9. Inner Mongolia Ximeng Zheligentu Wind Farm Phase I Project, listed on the Verra VCS registry.

  10. All dollar units in this paper indicate US dollars.

  11. We were unable to analyse vintage years for BP for two reasons: (1) the UN-CDM registry where we found two cases of credit retirement totalling 26,694 t-CO2e does not list this information, and (2) it does not disclose other retirements on registries.

  12. In addition to these areas, BP and Shell are marketing other forms of offset-bundled products such as lubricants, bitumen and even offsetting services for events (e.g. conferences). In defining three here, we highlight the most prominent domains of offset application.

  13. For example, motorists offsetting a 30-litre fuel purchase in the Netherlands in 2019 could do so for only 0.30 euro.

  14. Specifically, Shell has stated use of the Cordillera Azul National Park in Peru and Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project in Indonesia. Chevron has stated use of the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve in Indonesia and the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Seima Protection Forest in Cambodia. Credit issuance periods for these projects began in 2010, 2010, 2009 and 2010 respectively.

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Acknowledgements

The authors acknowledge funding from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Kaken funds 19H04333) and the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC; grant number EP/S029575/1).

Funding

This work was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (Kaken funds no. 19H04333) and the UK Energy Research Centre (no. EP/S029575/1).

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Contributions

GT conceived and designed the study. Material preparation, data collection and analysis were performed by GT. MB provided feedback on all previous steps. GT wrote the first draft of the manuscript. MB collaborated to edit this and interpret results. JA provided comments on manuscript and assisted with data interpretations. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Gregory Trencher.

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The original online version of this article has been updated to correct the position of the title and the footnote of Figure 3

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Trencher, G., Blondeel, M. & Asuka, J. Do all roads lead to Paris?. Climatic Change 176, 83 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-023-03564-7

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