Total is a French multinational oil and gas company led by CEO Patrick Pouyanné. In 2020, Forbes listed its sales at $176.2 billion.
The company says that it is a broad energy company, whose employees are committed to better energy that is more affordable, more reliable, cleaner and accessible to as many people as possible, and that its ambition is to become the responsible energy major. Total has also announced a rebrand to ‘TotalEnergies’.
In 2019, it disclosed emissions of 469 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. In 2020, emissions fell to 390 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent - but this rose to 441 million tonnes when the company excluded “the COVID-19 effect”.
From 2018 to 2030 Total’s planned emissions are estimated to account for c.1% of the global 1.5°C carbon budget.
The truth behind the greenwashing
The Climate Action 100+ Net Zero Company Benchmark finds that Total only meets some of the Benchmark’s targets criteria – the company 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.
Total is also scored ‘Partial’ for committing to align its capital allocation (investments) with its targets but failing to seek to align investments with the Paris Agreement goal to limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The Benchmark estimates that over $3.1 billion of Total’s 2019 capital expenditure on ‘upstream’ fossil fuel extraction and production, and 58% 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.
By 2030, Total plans to reduce oil sales but increase its fossil gas sales – from 33% of its sales in 2019 to 50% in 2030. By this date, the company plans for 85% of its energy sales to be either oil or gas.
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Between 2010 and 2018, Total was estimated to have allocated 4% of its capital expenditure to sources of low-carbon energy like wind and solar. Although its advertisements focus on new green tech and innovation, between 2015 and 2017 the reporting estimated it spent only 0.7% of its revenue on low-carbon technology research and development. The company has significantly scaled up its renewable spend and ambitions more recently.
Taking into account what Total calls the “COVID-19 effect” for 2020, the company has not reduced its disclosed Scope 3 emissions since 2015: the emissions from its products have stayed at around 400 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent each year since 2015.
By 2030, Total plans to reduce oil sales but to increase its fossil gas sales – from 33% of its sales in 2019 to 50% in 2030. By this date, the company plans for 85% of its energy product sales to be either oil or gas. The company has set 2025 and 2030 targets to reduce, in absolute terms, the Scope 1 and 2 emissions from the fossil fuels facilities it operates but these exclude the emissions from fossil gas power plants. Total’s reports do not explain what this exclusion of its emissions-intensive gas power operations from some of its targets is intended to achieve.
Despite the massive climate impacts of petrochemicals used for plastics, Total’s pledges apply to energy products and so exclude petrochemicals. The company’s 2020 Annual Report says it is “the second largest petrochemist in Western Europe”, and its petrochemicals production has increased from 7.4 million tonnes in 2018 to 7.8 million tonnes in 2020.
Total says that it will cut its worldwide Scope 3 emissions to below 2015 levels by 2030 – but its Scope 3 emissions in 2020 (400 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent, accounting for what Total calls the “COVID-19 effect”) were already lower than in 2015 (410 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent). Fossil fuel emissions (and production) need to be cut substantially more than 2015 levels by 2030. Overall, the company says “Group production will have risen substantially” by 2030.
The company’s 2020 Annual Report disclaims responsibility for its Scope 3 emissions produced from customers using its products. Although it sells oil and gas products (presumably to be used), the company says:
In energy, as with any commodity, demand typically drives supply, not the reverse. TOTAL manufactures neither airplanes, neither cars nor cement and cannot dictate whether a vehicle or aircraft will use gasoline, electricity or hydrogen.
However, the UN Environment Programme is clear that the world urgently needs to wind down fossil fuel production. Experts also argue that cuts in fossil fuel supply, not just demand, are needed and will be effective.
In 2020, Total doubled its gross renewable power capacity to seven gigawatts in 2020 and has large renewable ambitions, to grow capacity of 100 gigawatts of renewable power by 2030. Total invested $2 billion in its Renewables & Electricity segment - roughly 20% of its 2020 ‘Organic Investments’.
However, the company is still investing significantly in fossil fuels. Total also listed ‘Organic Investments’ of $5.5 billion on fossil fuels Exploration & Production and $2 billion on fossil fuels Downstream (Refining & Chemicals and Marketing & Services) business segments.
Total’s CEO called 2020 “a pivoting year for the Group’s strategy with the announcement of its ambition to get to Net Zero, together with society”. But the company also said its “two pillars” for the 2020-2030 decade are not only its Renewables & Electricity business but also LNG (liquefied natural gas), an energy intensive transport and storage process for fossil gas. Under Total’s investment policy out to 2025, “renewables and electricity” is planned to receive over 20% of Total’s net investment, compared to 15-20% on LNG.
Total has not yet pledged to stop oil and gas exploration and has not set out any plans to reduce oil and gas production by 2030, the date by which IPCC scenarios say emissions from oil, gas, and coal will need to have substantially reduced. Whilst the company’s proved reserves of oil and gas declined slightly from 2019 to 12.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent in 2020, Total’s efforts to discover more oil and gas between 2018-2020 propped this figure up by 1.4 billion barrels of oil equivalent over 2018-2020. In 2020, Total made six discoveries of new fossil fuel fields in Suriname, South Africa, the North Sea and in Egypt. The company’s oil and gas production in 2020 was an average of 2.8 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, lower than 2019 but higher than in 2018.
In September 2020, CEO Patrick Pouyanné said that LNG “is at the core of our ambitions” hailing “strong 10% growth per year since 2015” in LNG. The company’s LNG sales have almost doubled from 21.8 million tonnes in 2018 to 38.3 million tonnes in 2020. The company says that it is “expanding our presence along the entire gas value chain”. Its 2020 annual report highlights its investments “on major LNG production projects (Arctic LNG 2 in Russia and Mozambique LNG)". The company’s strategy is at variance with EU lawmakers’ call for an EU-wide ban on offshore oil and gas, and French plans for a similar ban.
Overall, analysis estimates that 50% of Total’s planned new projects from 2020-22 are inconsistent with an International Energy Agency scenario assessed to provide a 50/50 chance of keeping warming to 1.6°C. Whilst commentators recognise Total’s rapid growth in renewables capacity, they also highlight that the bulk of Total’s capital expenditure continues to be directed to oil and gas projects, most recently in Mozambique, Russia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates, Australia and Louisiana.
Total’s 2020 Annual Report declares an “ambition of reaching net zero emissions by 2050, together with society, from the production to the use of the energy products sold to its customers”.
In May 2020, Total announced a set of targets to reach “net-zero” Scope 1 and 2 emissions produced in its operations by 2050, meaning that it will absorb an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide as it produces. Total recognises that “we are responsible” for Scope 1 and 2 emissions. The company aims to reduce Scope 1 and 2 emissions from its facilities from 46 million tonnes in 2015 to 40 million tonnes in 2025, and by 40% compared to 2015 by 2030.
In Europe, Total has said it aims to reach net zero from all its emissions - including those produced from the energy products it sells — by the same date. These Scope 3 emissions make up the vast bulk of the emissions oil and gas businesses produce. The company says that “we do not have control over these indirect emissions” from its oil and gas products but “we can contribute actively to our customers’ choices and provide them with lower-carbon energy products”. Total aims to achieve an interim 2030 target of a 30% reduction in its Scope 3 emissions in Europe, in absolute terms.
Total’s targets are different for its operations outside Europe. Here, Total says that by 2030, it will reduce the carbon intensity of the energy products it sells (Scope 3) by 20%, compared to 2015 – having already achieved a 10% reduction by 2020. And by 2050, this will be 60% lower than in 2015.
In absolute terms, the company says this means by 2030 its Scope 3 emissions worldwide will be lower than they were in 2015.
On top of this, Total aims to increase its Capex in low-carbon projects such as wind and solar from 10% to 20% by 2030.
Carbon capture and storage and ‘nature based solutions’
Total says that CCUS technology applied to continuing oil and gas production must be deployed on a large scale to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, but it does not explain why this is better or cheaper than directing investment toward renewable energy. There is a history of repeated failures to scale-up CCS, which is said to be growing far too slowly for climate targets – too little, too late. Companies’ plans for CCS have been called ‘wishful thinking’ that distract from the need to significantly reduce oil and gas production.
Total’s brand new ‘Nature Based Solutions’ business unit aims to store 5 million tonnes of CO2 annually by 2030 through forestry plantations, in order to enable Total to meet its ‘net zero’ targets. In terms of CCS capacity, at present the company has a part-role in the Northern Lights CCS project, which aims to store 0.8 - 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year and is planned to be operational after end-2023. These projects will do little to dent emissions at the scale of Total’s reported 2019 emissions of 469 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Total says that “In response to the climate emergency, Total has made the development of carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) one of its strategic priorities”, although it only allocates 10% of its overall R&D budget to CCUS.
There are concerns that oil and gas companies are relying on environmentally and socially risky plans for mass tree planting and questionable claims to be offsetting emissions in order to continue oil and gas production.
In terms of investments, Total aims to spend $100 million per year on ‘nature based solutions’ and $100 million per year on carbon capture and storage research. This amounts to less than 2% of planned net investments of $12-16 billion from 2021-2025, and it is dwarfed by Total’s fossil fuel exploration expenditure $1.55 billion in 2019 and $1 billion in 2020.
According to a 2018 assessment by InfluenceMap, Total’s spend on climate-related advertising and promotion was then $52 million annually.
Focusing on biofuels
Despite the rapid growth in electric vehicles and renewable energy, Total claims that “Today, biomass represents the only renewable alternative to fossil fuels in the production of liquid fuels, on which transportation still largely depends”.
Algae biofuel projects have been criticised as a token project which offers no real prospect of economic feasibility, particularly in the face of rapidly falling electric vehicle costs. One expert analysed that for 10% of the EU’s transport fuels to come from algae biofuel would require ponds three times the area of Belgium. Total highlights algae biofuel as one of the “focuses of our efforts” with “promising prospects”. The company points to more than €500 million spent on biofuels research and development over the last ten years, but this represents a small part of its recent research and development spend of nearly $1 billion every year, which includes oil and gas research and development.
Total has attracted controversy for pushing to drill in the Amazon rainforest. In 2019, it bought into a major new gas project in Mozambique at a price of $4.4 billion. In 2020, the company agreed financing of $14.9 billion to push ahead with the gas project, with the CFO hailing “the long-term future of LNG in Mozambique”. Campaigners have called the huge Mozambique gas project “incompatible” with the Paris Agreement.
Total also aims to build the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, the world’s longest heated oil pipeline at 1,445 km long. Campaigners estimate the pipeline’s indirect annual emissions at 34 million tonnes of CO2 emissions equivalent, far in excess of the combined emissions of Uganda and Tanzania where the pipeline is planned.
Litigation and lobbying
The company faces litigation from NGOs and French local government bodies for the alleged failure to recognize and act on the climate risks of its business. In another case, NGOs argue that Total has not accounted for the emissions of an oil project in Uganda and Tanzania. In 1999, Total was held responsible by French courts for an oil spill in the Bay of Biscay, which caused one of the worst environmental disasters in France’s history.
Total is a member of a number of powerful trade associations with a history of opposing climate measures, including Fuels Europe. After deciding to remain in influential American Petroleum Institute (API) in its September 2020 review of trade association membership, following investor pressure, in January 2021 the company quit the API over its support for politicians opposed to the Paris Agreement.
However, a few weeks previously, Total also lobbied for the inclusion of fossil gas as an ‘environmentally sustainable’ business activity under the EU sustainable finance taxonomy initiative.
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.