Shell is a multinational oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands and led by CEO Ben van Beurden. In 2020, Forbes listed its sales at $311.6bn.
In 2020, Shell disclosed emissions of 1,377 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Its planned emissions from 2018 to 2030 are estimated to account for close to 1.6% of the global 1.5°C carbon budget.
The truth behind the greenwashing
Shell is still committed to exploring for new sources of oil and gas and does not have any plans to reduce the overall amount of oil and gas it produces by 2030, the date by which IPCC scenarios say emissions from oil, gas, and coal will need to have substantially reduced.
Shell mentions “using lower-carbon energy products to reduce GHG emissions”, but the company’s plans include growing its fossil gas business by 20% in the coming years. Whilst the company believes its oil production peaked in 2019 and will decline slightly by 1-2% per year until 2030, the company wants to grow its fossil gas operations until this occupies over half of Shell’s energy business by 2030.
Despite Shell’s climate pledges, the Climate Action 100+ Net Zero Company Benchmark finds that the company only meets some of the Benchmark’s targets criteria – Shell does not have both an ambition to reach ‘net-zero’ and net zero-aligned short, medium and long-term GHG reduction targets, which cover all its relevant emissions.
Shell is also scored ‘No’ for failing to disclose an aim to align its capital allocation (investments) with its targets, let alone with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Benchmark estimates that over $3.9 billion of Shell’s 2019 capital expenditure on ‘upstream’ fossil fuel extraction and production, and 66% of the company’s future capital expenditure, conflict with the International Energy Agency’s ‘Beyond Two Degrees’ scenario. In this scenario, total temperature rise is limited to 1.75°C by 2100. More and quicker emissions reductions would be required to limit temperature rise to the Paris goal of 1.5°C and to avert more climate harms to people and to the environment.
But its ads tell a different story…
Although Shell has an ambition to reach net-zero by 2050 in absolute terms, Shell’s ‘intensity’ pledges for 2030 and 2035 are not the same as commitments to achieve near-term absolute reductions in fossil fuel business in line with climate science. Instead, the gaps in Shell’s pledges permit continued fossil fuel sales for the next 14 years. Campaigners criticise the company’s decision to select a 20% 2030 emissions intensity reduction target rather than a near-term absolute emissions reduction target as “essentially kicking the difficult decisions into the long grass”. The company says that it expects that its total emissions from energy products, in absolute terms, will stay below 2018 levels – but the world needs to reduce fossil fuel emissions well below 2018 levels.
Shell’s targets are limited to its own ‘Net Carbon Footprint’ metric. Despite the massive climate impacts of petrochemicals used for plastics, Shell’s Scope 3 net-zero target is limited to energy products – and entirely excludes its petrochemicals business, which supplies 17 million tonnes of chemicals per year. The company also opts not to count some of its large fossil fuel trading operations.
Overall, Shell’s targets have a ‘get-out clause’ that the company will only move ‘in step with society’. Shell says that:
If society changes its energy demands more quickly, we intend to aid that acceleration. If it changes more slowly, we will not be able to move as quickly.
The company also won’t change its underlying business operating plans and budgets unless these are also “in step with the movement towards a Net Zero Emissions economy within society and among Shell’s customers”. It is not at all clear how Shell will decide this, and it may effectively allow the company to opt out of its pledges if it wants. This approach also fails to acknowledge that society (through the world’s governments) agreed over five years ago how it plans to move toward a net-zero economy - in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The company also tries to avoid responsibility for the huge emissions caused by its oil and gas products, saying that “Shell only controls its own emissions”, and not “our customers’ carbon emissions associated with their use of the energy products we sell”.
Shell says it fully supports the Paris Agreement goals and that it is aiming for “net-zero” emissions by 2050, meaning that it plans to absorb an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as it produces.
The company says its targets will be achieved “in step with society’s progress in achieving the goal of the UN Paris Agreement on climate change”.
In February 2021, Shell replaced its previous climate targets. The company now aims to reduce the carbon intensity of its operations (Scope 1 and 2 emissions) and the carbon intensity of its energy products (Scope 3 emissions) by 6-8% by 2023, 20% by 2030 and 45% by 2035. By 2050, it aims to reach 100% reductions – net zero, in absolute terms.
Carbon offsetting and capture plans
The company says it plans significant growth in CCS and ‘nature-based offsets’, including through planting trees, alongside continued fossil fuel production. This is despite the fact that the climate action standard, the Science-Based Targets Initiative, prohibits the counting of offsets in meeting near-term climate targets. The company’s published pathway for the world to meet the Paris 1.5C goal also includes a continued significant role for fossil fuels even in 2100, and relies on massive CCS use and planting trees over an area roughly the size of Brazil. The approach has been criticised as “delusional”. Campaigners have also warned that relying on vast tree plantations for offsets brings its own negative environmental impacts. Offsetting best practice is clear that companies must begin with “prioritis[ing] reducing your own emissions”.
Shell says its ambition is to invest $100 million per year in ‘nature-based projects’ theoretically offsetting emissions of around 120 million tonnes a year by 2030.
Shell also says that by 2030 it aims to have access to additional CCS capacity of 25 million tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly 25 times the Quest CCS project it operates in Canada. But Shell owns only 10% of this project, and the Canadian government needed to prop it up, committing C$865 million of public funds.
In 2020, Shell was responsible for emissions that far outweigh the 25 million tonnes of CO2 it wants to capture and the 120 million tonnes of CO2 it wants to ‘offset’ by 2030. Shell’s 2020 Scope 3 emissions from its energy products only were 1,305 million tonnes of CO2.
In 2020, the company spent $1.7 billion across its ‘Upstream’ and ‘Integrated Gas’ businesses on exploring for new fossil fuels – compared to just $70 million on capturing emissions from burning fossil fuels through CCS, and $90 million on ‘nature-based projects’.
Renewable energy investments
Between 2010 and 2018, Shell was estimated to have dedicated just 1% of its long-term investments to sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar, and in 2015-2017 only 0.4% of its revenue to low-carbon technology R+D.
Shell’s total capital expenditure for 2019 was listed as $22.9 billion, and for 2020 was $16.5 billion. Shell’s 2020 Annual Report lists its near-term investment priorities as including $2-3 billion per year in its ‘Renewables and Energy Solutions’ low-carbon business. Integrated Gas, Chemicals and Products and Upstream fossil fuels are slated to receive a total of around $17 billion. The top end of Shell’s talk of $2-3 billion annual investment in low-carbon business is the same as the $3 billion planned for ‘Marketing’, for selling its predominantly oil and gas products.
Studies indicate that Shell failed to meet its own 2020 target to spend $6 billion on renewable energy, against huge continuing investment in fossil fuels. It was estimated that Shell was not on track to meet its 2025 investment target, and that the company would need to direct more than half of its capital expenditure (around $10 billion per year) to zero carbon investments to meet its longer-term ‘net-zero’ targets.
Overall, analysis estimates that 60% of Shell’s planned new projects from 2020-22 are inconsistent with keeping warming to an International Energy Agency scenario assessed to provide a 50% chance of keeping warming to 1.6°C. Its 2019 annual report recognised that:
Some stakeholders may not agree with Shell’s strategy to continue to invest in oil and gas during the energy transition.
Criticism of a 'dishonest image' of Shell’s activities
Shell’s partnership with Bio-bean, a start-up business aiming to produce biofuel from coffee grounds, has involved a $57,000 award from Shell in start-up funding. Shell does not disclose the cost of its publicity campaigns regarding coffee biofuel, but in 2018, InfluenceMap assessed Shell's spend on climate-related branding at $55 million annually.
In December 2020, several clean energy executives quit the company amid reports of a management split over the slow pace of transition away from fossil fuels – although Shell rejects the reports. In the previous year, CEO Ben van Beurden commented that his “single biggest” regret would be abandoning its oil and gas business too quickly.
Shell was also criticised for greenwashing its activities in its 2018 #makethefuture campaign which used Instagram posts, short films, music videos, and a London-based “festival” to market clean-tech solutions to a millennial audience. In November 2020, Shell’s twitter post asking the public “what are you willing to change to reduce emissions?” was met with accusations of ‘gaslighting’. In 2016, the company’s ad agency, MediaCom UK, won an ad industry award for the ‘Shell Influencer Collective’ campaign. The description:
Our aim was to transform brand perceptions with our target millennials audience… We changed their minds.
Shell says its work with trade associations supports the Paris Agreement goal, and it left the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers in 2019 over climate policy misalignment However, it continues to be a member of several powerful associations that have a history of lobbying against key climate measures. These include the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chambers of Commerce. Despite another oil major company deciding in January 2021 to quit the influential American Petroleum Institute over its support for politicians opposed to the Paris Agreement, Shell reaffirmed its commitment to staying in the group.
More to explore
We’ve put together explainers of some of the key terms and phrases used in these Greenwashing Files.
What are GHGs?
GHGs stands for greenhouse gases - this is the group of seven gases generally seen as contributing to global warming, including carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4).
What are the Paris goals?
The goals which countries agreed on in Article 2(1) of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
What is CO2e?
CO2e stands for carbon dioxide equivalent, a measure of greenhouse gases. Other non-carbon dioxide greenhouse gases are converted to the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide on the basis of their global warming potential in order to produce a single greenhouse gases measure.
What are Scope 1-3 emissions?
Scope 1-3 emissions are the most widely used international carbon accounting tool. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol categorises a company’s GHG emissions into three groups:
- Scope 1 covers direct emissions from the company’s owned or controlled sources (e.g. burning fuel, company vehicles, emissions from the company’s own industrial processes).
- Scope 2 covers indirect emissions from the generation of electricity, steam, heating and cooling consumed by the company.
- Scope 3 includes all other indirect emissions that occur in a company’s value chain, including emissions from the use of its products.
Is gas clean?
Many fossil fuel companies make questionable claims about the sustainability of fossil fuel 'natural' gas, frequently marketed as ‘the cleanest-burning’ fossil fuel. Burning gas may produce less CO2 than burning coal or oil, but it is still carbon intensive, and not a viable long-term energy source – unlike renewable energy. Climate goals mean that gas use must be reduced, not increased.
On a full ‘lifecycle’ basis, generating electricity by burning gas produces on average more than 10 times the emissions of real low-carbon electricity sources like solar, and more than 40 times the emissions from wind power. As well as emitting significant CO2 when burnt, extracting, transporting and storing fossil fuel gas leaks methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. How much is leaked is critical - if leakage isn’t kept to low enough levels, the overall climate impact of gas can be worse than coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel. Measuring leakage is challenging, and significant advances in reducing leakage are needed.
Is gas a backup for renewables?
Currently gas power is not typically limited to a ‘backup’ function when variable wind and solar renewable energy drops off. Instead, gas is a significant source of regular electricity generation globally, providing electricity that could be replaced by increasingly cheaper renewables. Meanwhile, investments in new gas infrastructure with decades-long operating lifetimes are set to 'lock in' unsustainable greenhouse gas emissions.
Is carbon offsetting the answer to fossil fuels?
Companies’ climate plans increasingly rely on vague talk of huge ‘offsets’ or ‘nature-based solutions’ schemes instead of near-term reductions in fossil fuel production. These plans, even if costed and scalable, can in practice often involve vast commercial monoculture tree plantations, which can cause negative impacts on biodiversity and communities, and struggle to guarantee carbon storage for the hundreds of years which fossil fuel emissions will remain in the atmosphere. Some companies plan to claim the carbon ‘credits’ from existing forests by relying on questionable claims that the corporate offset schemes are the only way to stop deforestation. Carbon removals and offsetting schemes like this can be a part of tackling climate change. But they are not an alternative to prioritising cutting emissions for any sector, let alone for the fossil fuel industry.
Can we rely on carbon capture technology?
Analysis shows that reaching climate targets whilst continuing with today’s oil and gas projects would require a rapid and massive acceleration in carbon capture and storage (CCS). Despite long-running talk of big plans for CCS, companies have never operated it at anything like sufficient scale.
Today, global operational CCS capacity accounts for about 0.1% of global fossil fuel emissions, and the technology cannot capture 100% of emissions. Some companies plan to use, rather than store, captured CO2, often to extract yet more oil. CCS also does not avoid upstream methane emissions and may even increase these due to the additional energy required to run the technology.
There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, and plans for economically viable CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’. Experts highlight numerous problems and barriers to short-term deployment and consider that any future development of CCS will now be too little, too late for urgent pathways to a safe climate.
Is biomass sustainable?
Some companies are now turning from fossil fuels to forest biomass energy. Wood biomass is treated as ‘renewable’ under EU and UK law, based on a carbon accounting rule where the GHG emissions from burning biomass are counted as ‘zero’.
However, in reality, burning wood biomass can produce even more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels. Sourcing the fuel for biomass through logging is also linked to deforestation - degrading the natural carbon sinks we need for a safe climate. The carbon accounting rule is highly controversial, and does not mean that biomass is in reality ‘low-carbon’ or ‘carbon-neutral’. Because of this, scientists warn that burning wood biomass for energy creates a double climate problem - because it is a false solution to climate change that is replacing real solutions.
What are carbon emissions targets?
Emissions intensity targets – An intensity target is relative to product output, for example the amount of GHGs per barrel of oil produced.
Absolute emissions targets - An absolute target simply refers to the overall amount of GHG emissions attributable to the company. Under many intensity targets, a company can maintain or even increase its overall GHG emissions, provided it increases production enough.
What does CCUS mean?
CCS stands for carbon capture and storage. This is the process of trapping carbon dioxide produced, for example, by burning fossil fuels and then storing it permanently so that it will not contribute to global heating. CCUS, or carbon capture, use or storage, additionally refers to the use of trapped carbon dioxide for some other process.
How do you define capital expenditure?
Capital expenditure is investment by a company on major fixed assets such as buildings, vehicles, equipment or land. This is different from operating expenditure, which represents day-to-day recurring costs like salaries or rent.
The Greenwashing Files have been produced and published by ClientEarth, an environmental law charity registered in England and Wales, with research assistance from DeSmog. For more details, please refer to the registration details in the footer of our website. The information included in the Greenwashing Files is as of 25 March 2021.
The Greenwashing Files have been written for general information purposes and do not constitute legal, professional, financial, investment, shareholder voting or other advice. Specialist advice should be taken in relation to specific circumstances. Action should not be taken on the basis of this publication alone. ClientEarth endeavours to ensure that the information it provides is correct, but no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and ClientEarth does not accept responsibility for any decisions made in reliance on this document. The Greenwashing Files contain hyperlinks to other websites as a convenience to the reader. Because ClientEarth has no control over these sites or their content, it is not responsible for their availability, and ClientEarth is not responsible or liable for any such sites or content.