Oil Cos: Really Greener or Just More Greenwashing?

Dear EarthTalk: Are oil companies actually taking steps to cut emissions overall or are their claims mostly just “greenwashing”?

—J.B.S., Waukesha, WI

It’s no secret that the climate crisis is intensifying and the world is looking for solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its latest report that we are facing a “code red” for humanity if we are unable to make substantive changes. According to the IPCC we must cut our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in half by 2030 in order to secure a livable future. Even though there has been a push for emissions reduction, global emissions are not showing signs of declining.

As top contributors of pollution, oil companies are under a microscope. In response to increased pressure, many have begun to make promises that they are working towards being part of the solution. The scientific journal PLOS One reports that major oil companies are using terms like “climate,” “low-carbon” and “transition” more frequently in their reports and claim that they are striving to go “carbon neutral.”

Carbon neutral is as much of an oxymoron as there can be when applied to oil companies, which begs the question: How do they plan to accomplish this goal? One way they are trying to achieve net-zero emissions is by investing in nature-based carbon credits. Essentially, they are pledging money to plant trees that absorb the CO2 equivalent of the output of their company.

While this solution seems simple enough, common criticisms of oil companies’ responses are that net-zero promises are solely based on facility operations and not on the fuel sales themselves; additionally, oil companies have continued to invest in more acreage for the express purpose of extracting more oil—thereby showing their true priorities. Researchers at Tohoku University and Kyoto University conclude that transitioning to clean energy is not occurring because investments and actions by oil companies simply do not match the public promises they are making.

It’s important to understand that nature-based credits come with complications. It takes years for trees to mature so it’s often unclear how much CO2 they’ll absorb. In addition, the lifespan of these trees is not a guarantee either: With increasingly warm and dry conditions, there is an increased likelihood that these trees could die due to drought or fire, in which case the carbon offset becomes worthless.

So, are oil companies simply greenwashing?  Some have made minor efforts but it is not nearly enough. That being said, it is important to know how we as individuals can still make a difference. Divesting from oil companies will help reduce the amount of money going towards these polluters. Even if you are not giving money directly to oil companies, your money can indirectly exacerbate the problem. Doing your due diligence to make sure that your bank is not funding oil companies along with other investments in your portfolio can make a world of difference. Reallocating money to make sure you are investing in a clean energy future will help to take the fate of our planet out of the hands of big oil companies.


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