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NPR News

Major oil companies aren't following through on climate change promises

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You've probably heard the commercials.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We have a plan to help address climate change.

KELLY: Big oil companies with even bigger promises on clean energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: At Chevron were lowering the carbon emissions...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Shell is working as a partner for sustainable...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We're decreasing our methane emissions and developing...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: It's one of the ways ExxonMobil is advancing climate solutions.

KELLY: But a new report from Kyoto University says that despite those pledges, oil companies are not necessarily making the dramatic changes needed to transition to clean energy. Gregory Trencher is an associate professor at Kyoto University and a co-author of that report. He joins us now.

Gregory Trencher, welcome.

GREGORY TRENCHER: Nice to meet you.

KELLY: What made you want to look into this?

TRENCHER: So there was an extremely interesting study, actually, in the Guardian on an online article that was out about Shell. And there was a very sensational headline there. And that was accusing Shell of not being a planetary savior, but a planetary death machine. That was an extremely sensational heading. And when we sort of - you know, when I read that, I was sort of struck by, I guess, the distrust and the disconnect between sort of this green rhetoric of Shell and what this author was accusing them of, you know, doing or not doing.

KELLY: You started looking into all of this. As someone who was studying this already, what surprised you the most?

TRENCHER: Yeah, some of the surprising findings, I think, is basically the really sort of insignificant scale in terms of renewable energy investments and also some very blatant contradictions. So, for example, BP and Shell have pledged to curb fossil fuel production, but actually in 2020, they've increased. There are exploration activity. So all these metrics show us that not only is their efforts to decrease this fossil fuel production lacking, but actually there's efforts to increase it.

KELLY: What's the disconnect? These companies all say they want to move toward clean energy. Your report finds there's a lot of promises here. There's not so much action. Why?

TRENCHER: Yes. Well, I think we sort of have to understand the benefits of, you know, communicating a green image to society because these companies are under pressure. And it sort of allows them to sort of continue on with their business-as-usual model.

KELLY: I suppose it's also worth just making the big very obvious point. These are oil companies. I mean, for generations, they have profited off oil.

TRENCHER: Yes.

KELLY: It's how they've made money. This is a major pivot.

TRENCHER: Correct. So we sort of do have to be sort of a little bit empathetic in some respects because the sheer scale of these companies also means that they're going to require several years, probably even several decades, to fully make this transition. So this is not going to happen quickly. But we also shouldn't be sort of too kind in, you know, understanding the time that's required for this transition because many precious years have been wasted through denial and overlooking the problem.

KELLY: So when you hear the ads, the advertising that these companies put out, like the ones we just played to you, what goes through your head?

TRENCHER: Well, I guess sort of more green words. I think that many stakeholders in society are starting to see through the greenwashing. And this is really spelling dangerous times for these oil companies that are, you know, losing rapidly the trust that society has given them.

KELLY: Greenwashing is the term you just used.

TRENCHER: Well, I think there's kind of no other term to use here that describes this carefully calculated sort of discourse campaign that creates a very, very positive green image that doesn't correspond with actions.

KELLY: So I will note we reached out to all four companies for comment to your report, and I would encourage people to go to our website to read the responses, the full responses, if they want. Just to put one to you, a spokesperson for BP says the company made, and I will quote, "major advancements towards its net zero goals in 2021," and it doesn't believe that the paper, your paper, fully accounts for its progress. Gregory Trencher, is it possible these companies have initiatives underway that your report does not capture?

TRENCHER: So I guess, you know, the so-called data gap in our report - you know, this might be, like, in the scale of around, let's say, around six months or so, because we did look at documents that were published in 2021, and the annual reports we looked at do extend all the way to the end of 2020. We have only missed actually a couple of pledges. So in terms of, you know, recent activity that would drastically change the results of our study, nothing has occurred that would sort of do that.

KELLY: That's Gregory Trencher of Kyoto University. He's co-author of a new report that finds major oil companies are not living up to their promises on making the switch to green energy. Thank you.

TRENCHER: It's a pleasure. Thanks very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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