Flames grow near oil wells on the eastern flank of the 16,000-plus-acre Guiberson fire

Flames grow near oil wells on the eastern flank of the 16,000-plus-acre Guiberson fire, burning out of control for a second day on September 23, 2009 near Moorpark in Ventura County, California.

(Photo: David McNew/Getty Images)

Fossil Fuel Companies' Net-Zero Plans Are 'Largely Meaningless,' Report Finds

Existing pledges tend to ignore emissions caused by the distribution and consumption of petroleum products, and not a single fossil fuel company has committed to ending oil and gas production by 2050.

A growing share of fossil fuel corporations have pledged to reach "net-zero" greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century, but a new report reveals that the vast majority of them are doing "nothing concrete" to achieve such goals.

Climate justice advocates have long denounced the concept of "net-zero" because, they say, allowing planet-heating pollution to be "canceled out" via questionable carbon offset programs or risky carbon removal technologies is an accounting gimmick that doesn't guarantee the deep emissions reductions needed to avert the worst consequences of the climate crisis. Net Zero Stocktake 2023, unveiled Monday at the United Nations Bonn Climate Change Conference, shows that even if one accepts the premise that entities can negate, rather than eliminate, their pollution, they are still failing to deliver on the framework's own terms.

Based on publicly available data compiled by the collaborative research outfit Net Zero Tracker, the third comprehensive annual analysis of "net-zero target intent and integrity" finds that 75 of the world's largest 114 fossil fuel companies have now made net-zero by 2050 commitments, up from 51 a year ago.

However, most of those commitments don't fully cover or lack transparency on the coverage of "scope 3" emissions, rendering them "largely meaningless," the report says. In contrast to "scope 1" and "scope 2" emissions—resulting from production and the operation of company-owned property, respectively—scope 3 emissions stem from the distribution and consumption of products, making them by far the most significant for fossil fuel companies.

To make matters worse, not a single fossil fuel company has committed to phasing out oil and gas production by 2050 nor have any committed to ending exploration for new oil and gas fields or halting the extraction of existing reserves, notes the report. Only two have vowed to stop building or enlarging coal mines and another two have rejected new coal-fired power stations. Just four have promised to end coal-fired power generation by 2030 in rich countries and by 2040 in all nations.

The International Energy Agency made clear in 2021 that any new investment in coal, oil, and gas is inconsistent with its net-zero by 2050 roadmap. Since then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has repeated its warning that expanding fossil fuel supply is incompatible with limiting global warming to 1.5°C. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned the status quo as a civilizational "death sentence" and called the aforementioned actions currently being ignored by all but a few dirty energy firms a "survival guide for humanity."

Despite all of those alarm bells, oil and gas corporations—long aware of their contributions to the climate emergency, swimming in record profits, and empowered by policymakers who have continued to lavish the industry with trillions of dollars in subsidies each year while failing to agree to a global fossil fuel phaseout—are still planning to ramp up drilling in the coming years.

During last year's COP27 summit, a group of U.N. experts outlined the parameters of a high-integrity net-zero strategy for companies and sub-national governments. In addition, the U.N. earlier this month launched the Global Climate Action Recognition and Accountability Framework for non-state entities.

As the latest Net Zero Stocktake, citing the U.N.'s guidance, points out:

Achieving credible net-zero requires the phasing down and out of fossil fuel extraction and use, with any residual emissions being removed by like-for-like carbon dioxide removal later in the century. For the 77 fossil fuel companies with net zero targets, as well as those without them, they should reflect on the U.N. Expert Group's fifth recommendation that a fossil-fuelled future is incompatible with what 195 nations agreed to in 2015 when they signed the Paris agreement. The U.N. expert group also clarified that the focus should not just be on transitioning away from fossil fuels by mid-century, but "must be matched by a fully funded transition toward renewable energy."

"We haven't yet seen a huge move from fossil fuel companies or other companies on meeting those [guidelines], so there's still a lot of work to do to come up to that level," report co-author Thomas Hale, a professor at the University of Oxford, toldReuters.

Fossil fuel corporations aren't the only entities examined by Net Zero Tracker.

Researchers are keeping tabs on all countries, all states and regions in the 25 highest-emitting nations, all cities with more than 500,000 residents, and the largest 2,000 publicly listed companies worldwide, leading to a database with over 4,000 entries. Of those, at least 1,475 have set a net-zero target, up from 769 in December 2020. However, as with oil and gas firms, "there are very limited signs of improvement in the robustness of sub-national and corporate net-zero targets and strategies" overall, the report notes.

Progressive critics might say the analysis provides further evidence that despite the U.N.'s best efforts to establish high standards, corporate net-zero pledges still amount to little more than a greenwashing tactic—one that threatens to delay the transformative action needed to save millions of lives this century.

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