Exxon announced on Tuesday it would set a goal to be net zero by 2050, thus proving oil companies are just like you and me: prone to peer pressure and willing to fudge a few numbers to look good. Unfortunately, Exxon’s fudged numbers hold a lot more sway over the fate of the planet than my bench press personal record.
Exxon’s announcement comes after years of the company getting absolutely hammered for being the worst investor-owned oil company when it comes to doing something, anything about climate change. Just last year, the company got wrecked by its own shareholders in a climate-related revolt. With the net zero pledge, Exxon joins the ranks of Chevron, BP, and Shell in pretending to have a climate plan in line with a habitable planet. (Let’s also pause to laugh for a minute at how Exxon CEO Darren Woods said BP and Shell were engaging in a “beauty match” when they set net zero goals in 2020. Welcome to the pageant, Darren.)
Every climate pledge by oil companies is basically worthless, at least by the metrics that matter like keeping carbon pollution out of the atmosphere and winding down new oil exploration. The Exxon net zero pledge is particularly weasely, though, for a few reasons.
The first is what it actually covers. The company said its plan is to get Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions to net zero. For those not initiated in Big Oilese, those are the emissions from extracting, refining, and shipping fossil fuels. They account for just 20% of Exxon’s total emissions. The lion’s share of emissions tied to Exxon’s business—known as Scope 3 emissions—come from burning the oil and gas the company ships to market.
Exxon’s pledge to have its operations reach net zero by 2050 is like saying you’ll stop smoking while still buying cartons of cigarettes and handing them out to school kids. Sure, your cancer risk may be a lot lower but it’s not exactly a public health success. Among the ways that Exxon will reduce emissions using “lower-emission fuels” to dig up more fossil fuels, so it’s even sneaking a cigarette on the fire escape every now and then itself.
The company also said it would plow $15 billion into “lower-emission initiatives” over the next five years. Obviously, Exxon isn’t going to zero out its emissions in five years and “lower” could conceivably be a start. The company wrote that a “significant share” of that money will go into “scaling up carbon capture and storage, hydrogen and biofuels.” That’s nice, but each of these technologies has so far proven borderline useless at lowering emissions—and in some cases, could actually lead to higher emissions. What they are useful for, though, is allowing Exxon to keep digging up oil and gas while promising that’s it’s trying really hard to figure out how to fix this whole huge source of carbon pollution thing. 🥺🥺🥺 Or as Woods put it in the press release announcing the big plan, “We will create shareholder value by adjusting investments between our existing low-cost portfolio and new lower-emission business opportunities to match the pace of the energy transition.”
The company also talks a lot about lowering carbon intensity along the way. That basically means its operations will become more efficient at digging up oil and gas. This is a very convenient metric for Exxon because it can point to emitting less carbon per barrel of oil extracted, even as it extracts more oil.
None of this even gets into how vague net zero goals actually are in the first place. Companies are announcing them like they’re going out of style, but there’s no accepted metric for how to get there. Could Exxon just say screw it, buy a bunch of questionable carbon offsets, and say it made it to net zero even earlier than anticipated? Absolutely! Would that be bad for the climate? My friends, it would!
Look, it’s very nice Exxon and other oil companies are putting out these broad plans. But it also shows the utter futility of allowing corporate actors to set the climate agenda. There’s no accountability and very little attention paid to the physics at hand or independent science that shows we need to end new fossil fuel exploration this year or risk missing out on the 1.5-degree-Celsius (2.7-degree-Fahrenheit) target in the Paris Agreement. What’s needed is a robust, global response led by governments with their citizens’ best interests in mind rather than corporations looking to maximize shareholder value.
“Sound government policies are needed to accelerate the deployment of key technologies at the pace and scale required to support a net-zero future,” Exxon wrote in its net zero roadmap.