Shell is not the
green saviour it claims to be, but a planetary death machine
By George Monbiot, published in the
Guardian 26th June 2019
It is hard to believe it needs
stating, but it does. The oil industry is not your friend. Whatever it might
say about its ethical credentials, while it continues to invest in fossil
fuels, it accelerates climate breakdown and the death of the habitable planet.
You would think this point was obvious to everyone. But over the past few
weeks, I have spoken to dozens of environmentalists who appear to believe that
Shell is on their side. I’ve come to the bizarre conclusion that there is more
awareness of the oil industry’s agenda within the arts than there is among
Last week, the actor Mark Rylance brilliantly
reasons for resigning from the Royal Shakespeare Company over its sponsorship
by BP. The oil company had been subsidising cheap tickets for young people. It
might be trashing the world these young people will inherit, but they can watch
some great shows. This is bread and circuses – without the bread.
asked, “the RSC
wants to be on the side of the world-changing kids, not the world-killing
companies?”. To judge by its responses to his complaints across the years,
apparently not. But, thanks to campaigning groups like Platform, Art Not Oil,
BP or not BP?, and Culture Unstained, theatre companies, museums and art
galleries are at least aware that there’s a conflict.
Two months ago, Shell
$300m fund for “investing in natural ecosystems” over the next three years.
This, it claims, will help “support the transition towards a
low-carbon future.” By paying for reforestation, it intends to offset some of
the greenhouse gases produced by its oil and gas extraction. In conversations
with environmental campaigners from several parts of the world, I keep hearing
the same theme: Shell is changing, Shell is sincere – so shouldn’t we support it?
fund sounds big, and it is – until you compare it to Shell’s annual income of
$24 billion. Shell’s transition towards a low-carbon future is almost invisible
in its annual report.
Renewable energy doesn’t figure in its summary of financial results. When I
checked with the company, it told me it had no discrete figure for its income
from low carbon technologies. Nor could it tell me how much it invested in them
last year. But it did pour $25 billion of investment into oil and gas in 2018,
including exploration for new fossil fuel reserves in the deep waters of the
Gulf of Mexico and off the coasts of Brazil and Mauritania. Among its assets
are 1400 mineral leases in Canada, where it makes synthetic crude oil from tar
sands. Some transition.
Shell’s “cash engines”, according to
its annual report, are oil and gas. There is no sign that it plans to turn the
engines off. Its “growth priorities” are chemical production and deep water oil
extraction. It does list low carbon energy among its “emerging opportunities”
in future decades, but says it will develop them alongside fracking and
liquefied fossil gas technologies. In the future, the
company says, it
will “sell more natural gas.” But as an analysis
by Oil Change International explains,
“there is no room for new fossil fuel development — gas included — within the
Paris Agreement goals.” Even existing gas and oil extraction is enough to push
us past 1.5°C of global heating. Shell is a company committed
for the long term to fossil fuel production – which is another way of saying
Shell is explicit about the purpose of
schemes like its natural ecosystems fund. The company’s success, its chairman says, “will depend
largely on whether society trusts us. Investors invest in companies they trust,
governments allow trusted companies to operate and consumers buy things from
people they trust.” Among the company’s strategic ambitions is “to
sustain a strong societal licence to operate”.
Restoring natural ecosystems is crucial
to preventing climate breakdown. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) points out, drawing down large amounts of carbon
dioxide from the atmosphere is essential if we are to stand any chance of
preventing more than 1.5°C or even 2°C of global heating. By far the best way
of doing this is through natural climate
protecting and restoring living systems such as forests, mangroves, saltmarshes
and peat bogs. As they develop, they absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into
solid carbon, in the form of wood, mud and soil. In April, with a small team, I
launched a campaign to prioritise these solutions.
But the IPCC also makes it clear that
natural climate solutions do not compensate for the continued release of
greenhouse gases. We also need immediate and drastic cuts in fossil fuel
production. To sustain a habitable planet, we must leave fossil fuels in the
ground and protect and rewild living systems. The age of offsets is
But Shell intends to keep finding and
developing new reserves. Only last week, it withheld
its support for a
legally binding target to reduce the EU’s emissions to net zero by 2050.
Trumpeting its investment in natural ecosystems looks to me like a means of sustaining
its social licence to extract the gas and oil that will destroy our lives.
As if to highlight the distracting
nature of Shell’s public relations, earlier this month its chief executive, Ben
van Beurden, gave
a lecture in
which he instructed people to “eat seasonally and recycle more”. He lambasted
“consumers who choose to eat strawberries in winter”, explaining that his
driver had revealed that he “had bought a punnet of strawberries in January
that were grown in Chile.” What are the chances that the jet fuel used to fly
them here was supplied by Shell? They who have put out the
people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness.
To me, Shell’s strategy is so
transparent that it is hardly worth debating. It wants to stay in the fossil
fuel business, but it needs to fend off the regulation that might threaten this
business. If the company is not prepared to abandon its cash engines, it must
change people’s perceptions of its activities. Shell’s
natural ecosystems fund, in my view, is blatant greenwash.
company’s strategy is working. A remarkable number of people who should be
fighting Shell instead see this company as a green alternative to Exxon,
persuaded by what is, in comparison to its filthy investments, a tiny sop. Shell
has longstanding relationships with four “environmental partners”:
the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the Nature Conservancy,
Wetlands International and Earthwatch. I believe it is just as wrong for these
groups to take its money as it is for the RSC to take BP’s. It surprises me
that there is not as much pressure on them to break their links as has been, for
example, on the British Museum, whose relationship with BP is becoming a national embarrasment.
But enthusiasm for Shell is not confined to its partners. Plenty of well-intentioned organisations and people, who share my enthusiasm for natural climate solutions, appear so desperate to clutch at any straws of hope that they are prepared to see this company as part of the solution. Shell is not our friend. It is an engine of planetary destruction.