Last week, the Royal Dutch Shell company got a lot of nice publicity for signing the Trillion Tonne Communiqué (TTC), a climate action project of the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group. However, when we took a quick look at the group’s FAQ page and put that together with a news item from our friends over at TheHill.com, two things jumped out at us: coal and carbon capture.
When you put coal and carbon capture together with TTC, the most you can say about Shell is that the energy company is using the declaration more as publicity leverage for its existing oil and gas operations, rather than a meaningful step toward transitioning its business model into renewable sources. So, let’s take a closer look at TTC and the answers to those frequently asked questions (FAQs).
The Trillion Tonne Communiqué and coal
Here’s TTC describing itself:
The Trillion Tonne Communiqué is a global call to arms from businesses who take the science of climate change seriously and are demanding a proactive policy response.
Now, let’s take a look at the Communique itself (you can download it as a PDF here after selecting your language). Skip down to the section on the specific steps that TTC recommends to bring down greenhouse gas emissions (break added):
Create a plan for fossil fuels, especially coal. Achieving net zero emissions will require substantial changes to our energy supply … the scale of demand for fossil fuels means we will only be able to continue to use them if the emissions can be captured and stored.
This is particularly true of coal, which, although abundant and cheap, is also the energy source associated with the most carbon emissions. New investment plans must take this into account.
TTC focuses on coal rather than weighing in with equal urgency on all fossil fuels. The answer to FAQ No. 6 elaborates on that point (break added):
We cannot manage the risk of climate change successfully if the world continues to expand unabated coal use.
However not only is coal the fossil fuel that is associated with the most carbon emissions, but there is also a growing international effort to make a strategic shift away from the burning of unabated coal.
FAQ No. 6 further elaborates by providing examples of aggressive anti-coal policies that are already in the works.
That includes the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, which have announced that they will limit their investment in coal plants.
FAQ No. 6 also cites President Barack Obama, who announced the end of U.S. public financing for new coal-fired power plants overseas. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden are among those signing on to Obama’s call for other nations to join the ban.
Clearly, TTC is not an across-the-board action plan for fossil fuels. It aggressively zeroes in on coal as the low-hanging fruit of climate action policy, leaving oil and gas off its radar for now.
That’s perfectly legitimate as far as picking off the low-hanging fruit goes, but it also makes TTC a climate policy safety zone for oil and gas companies like Shell, enabling them to burnish their green cred without substantially altering their business model.
Shell and carbon capture
The absence of movement on Shell’s business model becomes even more obvious if you take a look at the aforementioned news item from TheHill.com.
Following up on the addition of Shell to the list of TTC signatories, reporter Laura Barron-Lopez got this email statement from a company spokesperson (emphasis added, and here’s that link again):
We recognize that over the long term, net global emissions must trend towards zero. Both of our New Lens Scenarios show that this objective can be realized by the end of this century, but not without action by governments to stimulate changes in the energy system and considerable deployment of carbon capture and storage.
We’re not sure what Shell means by “changes in the energy system,” but the reference to carbon capture and storage is a definitive statement of business as usual: Shell will continue to sell oil and gas, other folks will continue to burn it, and other folks will have to figure out how to deal with the emissions.
TTC and great publicity for Shell
As for the publicity Shell has been getting out of signing on to TTC, that article from TheHill.com was headed “Shell joins ranks in fight against climate change.”
Echoing TheHill.com was a story in the Guardian, which put Shell in the same company as the highly regarded Unilever as far as climate action goes.
The article sourced a BusinessGreen.com piece titled “Corporate giants’ ‘Trillion Tonne Communiqué’ issues fresh demand for climate action.”
It’s easy to see why Shell put an excerpt and link to the Guardian article in a prominent position on its home page. Here’s the headline, subhead, photo caption and opening paragraph as it appears on TheGuardian.com:
Trillion tonne communiqué signed by 70 companies calls for rapid response to rising emissions, reports BusinessGreen
A trillion tonnes of carbon must stay in the ground to stop dangerous climate change, say 70 companies with a combined annual turnover of around $90bn.
Unilever, Shell, BT, and EDF Energy are among 70 leading companies today calling on governments across the globe to step up efforts to tackle climate change. The companies, which have a combined turnover of $90bn, say the world needs a “rapid and focused response” to the threat of rising global carbon emissions and the “disruptive climate impacts” associated with their growth.
That’s what you get when you cherry-pick a climate action group that best fits in with your current operations, rather than adopting a policy position that requires fundamental change.
Image (cropped): Shell gas station by Martin Abegglen