Delving below the greenwash – is Shell going to ‘Make the Future’?

Many UK health institutes have direct or indirect investments in Shell. Does this conflict with a health-focused mission? 

Earlier this month, Olympic Park was filled with the buzz of ‘bright ideas’, smiling millennials and a glittering array of popstars.  Shell had moved in to town for its ‘Make the Future’ festival. ‘Solutions to the energy challenge’ were being explored, there was talk of running buses on ground coffee and an ‘eco-marathon’ was underway. Earlier in the year Shell had reiterated its support for the Paris Climate Agreement. What’s more, the Oil Giant had unveiled ‘Sky’, an ‘ambitious scenario’ which, apparently, could chart a course to achieving the Paris Climate goals.

Listen to this cheery PR for long enough and you could be forgiven for believing that Shell was going green. That the leopard has finally changed its spots.

But has it? Not quite. In fact, not at all. While Shell’s words may be taking on a confusing shade of green its actions are still positively red. As in ‘planet in severe danger’ warning signal red. But since actions should speak louder than words it’s worth examining Shell’s actions – and analysing how aligned – or misaligned – they actually are with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement.

The Paris Climate Agreement to protect health; what does it require?

It’s worth looking first at what’s required by Paris. The Agreement aims to hold the global average temperature increase to ‘well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels’ and to pursue ‘efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C’.   

Warming beyond these limits would result in irreversible climate change that would have devastating health impacts. Climate change is already damaging the health of millions but its future health impacts are even more concerning;  the last half century of gains in global health and development are at stake. Climate change is altering the distribution and burden of vector-borne diseases, increasing heat-related mortality and driving hunger and malnutrition. Rising incidence of extreme weather events is  increasing the risk of injury and drowning, the spread of water-borne disease and mental health sequelae.

A 2016 report by Oil Change International showed that the potential carbon emissions from the oil, gas, and coal in the world’s currently operating fields and mines would take us beyond 2°C of warming. The reserves in currently operating oil and gas fields alone, even with no coal, would take the world beyond 1.5°C.

The report therefore recommended that, if we are to be Paris compliant, no new fossil fuel extraction or transportation infrastructure should be built – and that some of the currently operating fossil fuel projects should be put into managed decline. That puts exploration for new fossil fuels, and the opening of new fossil fuel projects, firmly off the table.

Do Shell’s actions align with Paris?

Sadly, Shell is hell bent on putting new fossil fuel projects onto the table. It is prioritizing growth in its oil and gas projects – and continues to explore for new fossil fuel reserves. As recently as May 2018, Shell announced that it had made a large deepwater oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico and boasted that the find would help to ‘deliver our deepwater growth priority’.

As for managed decline of existing fossil fuel projects? Again, Shell is doing just the opposite. It has been reinforcing its existing oil and gas sites with new infrastructure to expand their lifetime, according to Shell documents, new infrastructure in its ‘Mars’ deepwater field should extend its life to ‘2050 or beyond’.

Paris climate goals require the power sector to be decarbonized by mid-century. This means that gas use must be phased out, not increased.  Rather ironically, Shell has stated that “in the near term the greatest contribution Shell can make [to climate action] is to continue to grow the role of natural gas.”  The company continues to propagate the myth that gas can be used as a “bridge fuel” between coal and/or oil and renewable energy. Numerous studies have debunked this myth and have shown that growth in natural gas will not reduce emissions and is not compatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement. Wind and solar are now comparable in cost to gas, and all three are significantly cheaper than coal in many regions. This means that new gas capacity often displaces new wind and solar rather than coal. Claims that gas supports renewable energy development do not stand up to scrutiny.

Shell’s interest in fracking for shale gas is particularly concerning. Fracking presents a range of other environmental and public health risks in addition to its climate impacts.

What about ‘Sky’?

But what about the aforementioned ‘Sky’ scenario? Does it offer Shell some redemption? Again, the opposite is the case. Firstly, Sky doesn’t line up with the science of what Paris requires. As a recent piece by Oil Change International demonstrated, Sky misinterprets the goals of the Paris Agreement  Astonishingly, it has oil, gas and coal use at respectively 88%, 93%, and 62% of their current levels at 2050.  It then assumes that technologies will be invented to suck carbon out of the atmosphere and deployed on a massive scale. It also requires that spectacular progress be made in technology to capture and bury carbon emissions. To date, carbon-sucking technologies exist only in theoretical models. Two decades of research on carbon capture and storage has struggled to demonstrate its technical viability, many pilot project have failed and previous advocates of the technology have withdrawn support and funding.

The assumptions contained in Sky show that Shell has no qualms about gambling with humanity’s future.  It should be remembered too that Sky is just a scenario. In Shell’s own words, its scenarios ‘are not forecasts; neither are they our business plan’. The Shell website features a range of scenarios and Sky is just one of these. For Shell, Sky is a useful scenario to pick off the shelf when it needs to look green. We shouldn’t let Sky distract from the devastating climate impacts of the company’s actual business plan.  Shareaction’s 2017 analysis of that business plan is worth highlighting here – their analysis concluded that “Shell’s current business model and base case for planning is consistent with 3–5°C+ of global warming”

Shell’s greenwashing is an insult to science and to human health

The words of health professionals and scientists should be supported by  evidence. Our words and actions should not contradict each other. Health professionals shouldn’t tell patients that we’re curing them while knowingly and avoidably damaging their health! That makes Shell’s PR spin as it ‘promotes STEM’ at festivals like ‘Make the Future’ very hard to stomach. While Shell talks about ‘Making the Future’ its actions are putting the future health of people and planet in grave danger.  Visions of Phillip Morris running a ‘festival of lung health’ spring to mind. It’s that absurd.

Contact [email protected] to help end health organisations’ investment in fossil fuel companies like Shell.