For too long now, the UK government and the big dogs in the oil industry have been getting away with a ‘business as usual’ approach on fossil fuels – extracting as much oil and gas as possible, regardless of the devastating impact on people and the climate. But a recent string of setbacks could force politicians and oil bosses to think again.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) – the most influential energy think tank in the world – has said governments should halt any plans to greenlight more oil and gas; and from the boardroom to the courtroom oil companies are being told that their dubious net zero plans aren’t good enough.
Government told: no new oil, gas or coal after this year if we want to keep global warming under 1.5 degrees.
This year the UK will host global climate talks in Glasgow, known as COP26. The government unit that’s prepping for the conference asked the IEA to publish a report on how the world’s energy mix needs to look if the world is going to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The answer was definitely not what they expected – or wanted: the IEA was admirably clear: development of new oil and gas projects must end this year and no new coal-fired power stations can be built if we want to keep global heating below 1.5C.
This analysis has made things pretty awkward for the UK government, because their plan is to keep signing off on new oil and gas licences, which will let big fossil fuel companies pump oil and gas from the North Sea for decades to come. These plans get the official thumbs down from the IEA, and it’s not a good look for Boris Johnson, who just last month said world leaders need to “get serious” if we want to stop climate change.
A hellish week for Shell: investors want more climate action, and courts order them to cut emissions.
On the same day as the IEA bombshell, Shell’s investors made some noise of their own. Shell held their annual general meeting, where shareholders were given the chance to vote on the oil company’s climate plans.
As you can probably guess, Shell’s climate plans are a joke. Instead of cutting production of oil and gas, they’ve said they want to increase their gas production by 20% in the next 10 years. And in a ridiculous attempt to balance things out, they’re hoping to plant so many trees that they’d probably need to relocate their HQ to a treehouse, instead of doing what they need to do and actually extracting and using less fossil fuels. They also say it’s not their job to fix the climate, but they’ll think about it if their customers make an effort first.
Usually at these meetings, the bosses get overwhelming support for their plans, but this year was a little bit different. Support doubled for a call for an alternative, more ambitious plan, drawn up by activist investors Follow This; while votes backing Shell’s plan dropped by around 10%.
Fast forward one week, and Shell got a dressing down in Dutch courts in a case brought by Friends of the Earth, supported by Greenpeace and many others. Shell, who are based in the Netherlands, were told that their climate plans aren’t sufficiently “concrete” and the court ordered them to cut their emissions by 45% by 2030.
This is a huge moment, because it’s the first time a company has been forced by the courts to align their plans with the Paris agreement, where countries agreed to limit global warming to 1.5C. It means that by law Shell have to change not just their climate plan, but their entire business model.