“We are facing an existential threat”. This is how the UN Environment programme presentation starts. We are told every day that our planet will soon become uninhabitable, hundreds of species are becoming extinct, the polar ice shields are melting, the sea levels are rising and that all of this is because of us, because of our irresponsible behaviour and our selfish acts. But is it? Undoubtedly, living more sustainable lives may bring many benefits to the next generations, but to how much can we actually influence the future of the planet and who is it to blame for the “existential threat” that we are facing now?
There are plenty of solutions that our leaders are proposing: stop travelling by plane, reduce heating, eat less meat and more insects, and drive less. But the ones promoting them are the ones that arrived last week at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP27) in their private jets, living luxurious lives that have nothing to do with what they say. You have probably heard about Greta Thunberg and her activism on climate action, as she is receiving considerable attention on the news, in schools and even universities. But her ideas also include that we should stop having children, describing it a selfish act, harmful to the environment, as she mentioned in a recent interview. Surveys on climate change anxiety or eco-anxiety show that nearly 60% of young people feel extremely worried or very worried about it and half of the people said this has impacted their daily lives. A few years ago, there was a trending YouTube video presenting actress Nicole Kidman eating alive bugs, disgusted, but recommending them, which is said to have been sponsored by the World Economic Forum, as part of their intensive promotion campaigns. Has the world gone mad on this topic? Do they not see the absurdity of these ideas?
Although some scientists say that climate change projections, especially in the long future, are unreliable, most of the people are very sure about the catastrophic years that will come if we do not act now. And since economics is strictly related to this, the following examples will raise some question marks about who it is really to be blamed and what the actual price paid for this is.
At the 2015 COP21, the Paris Climate agreement was negotiated, and nearly every nation has signed up a net zero promise to be achieved by 2050 or even earlier. Although this marked a historic turning point for the climate action, it is also a tool used by some of the dirtiest companies in the world to make more money. Mark Carney, the UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance, one of the people most responsible for our net zero future, is also vice chairman and head of Impact Investing at Brookfield Asset Management. He declared for Bloomberg that Brookfield is “net zero across its $575 billion asset portfolio”. Soon after some investigations, it was found that his firm has invested billions in the highly polluting coal and oil sands sectors, being the leading shareholder in major fossil fuel infrastructure products, including a coal port and many gas pipelines.
The Guardian’s series “Climate Crimes” investigates “how the fossil fuel industry contributed to the climate crisis and lied to the American public”. Oil companies have been using net zero advertising to green wash their image, while making billions of dollars from the continuous destruction of our planet. One of the biggest examples is British Petroleum. When the BP’s new CEO Bernard Looney pledged net zero carbon emissions by 2050, it became a Financial Times headline. However, a more detailed analysis shows that, in the pledge, their definition of net zero only covers the emissions created as a direct result of processing and drilling oil, excluding many other sources, such as: the pollution produced by BP’s massive supply chain, the emission created when its product are burned (by the ships, cars or planes that use its oil), and also excluded 40% of its global oil production, the emissions produced by the Russian energy giant Rosneft. Moreover, the fossil fuel companies, despite their rhetoric, continue to put their lobbying power behind campaigns and trade groups that oppose climate action. “In 2018, for example, BP played a central role in blocking the adoption of a carbon tax in Washington State, spending $13 million to help defeat the effort (…) BP, Chevron and [the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group] all supported the Trump administration’s weakening of regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. The institute has also pressed lawmakers and governors to eliminate incentives for electric vehicles, policies that are among the few in the United States that encourage a shift away from oil.”(Inside Climate News).
Another important topic is related to carbon capture and storage (CCS), technologies that should reduce the CO2 emissions in the energy systems. Many of the government grants received by companies to combat climate change were invested in CCS, going to the world’s largest oil companies (some of the most polluting entities on earth). For example, Shell’s massive carbon capture facility in Canada is emitting more greenhouse gasses than it is capturing, throwing into question whether taxpayers should be funding it. To put that in perspective, the “climate-forward” part of the Scotford plant alone has the same carbon footprint per year as 1.2 million fuel-powered cars. Despite that we would have been better off without its existence, it is expanding and a second one will be ready soon. Similarly, Chevron’s facility in Australia, projected to create the world largest carbon capture project, turned out to be an “epic fail”, capturing only 1.8% of the emissions it has promised to. Comparing the estimated and the actual numbers generated by UN, the flaws of this system are more than obvious: in 2000, investments in CCS were predicted to pull 5000 million tons from the atmosphere per year, and, in 2020, the number was 10 million tons globally (0.2% of the target).
We are constantly reminded about our carbon footprint and about what companies are doing to reduce their own. The carbon footprint was first introduced by British Petroleum, in a massive advertising campaign. They invented a formula to calculate it and spent millions on promoting it, claiming to be the first company to take steps against global warming. This might be true; however, they are also the 5th largest producer of oil and gas products on the planet, responsible for the second largest oil spill in the history. So, they started blaming the individual people as the real source of carbon, hiding their enormous flaws. It was found that they invested more money advertising the green products than actually creating green energy. Moreover, in 2019, they spend more money lobbying against climate action than any other publicly owned company on earth.
Oil companies are making billions of dollars investing in high carbon activities, while blaming you for all of it. They are the ones responsible for creating a brand-new industry that is helping them become very rich: carbon offsets. The market for carbon offsets was estimated to be over $261 billion in 2020 and has many benefits: it helps environmental projects that cannot secure funding on their own, and it gives businesses increased opportunity to reduce their carbon footprint. But, selling carbon credit is a very profitable business: according to Bloomberg, it has the potential to become 10 times larger than the global crude oil market and Europe’s industry polluters make 50 billion euros in carbon market windfall profits. Hence, it is used by wealthy companies to buy their way out, rather than taking more direct responsibility for their emissions. They weaken the push for more aggressive collective action, such as a carbon tax.
To conclude, our economy is largely influenced by all these climate change initiatives, but many of them are not what they seem to be. Of course, each one of us has a responsibility and our collective and individual actions can make the world a better place. However, do not let some profitable companies tell you what to do, and more importantly, do not believe their nicely formulated environmental campaigns, blaming you for their negative externalities and failures. Since there are so many lies is the system, next time you see an apocalyptic or a too good to be true news headline, take it with a grain of salt! And if you are interested in the subject, you can start thinking about some actual, meaningful, and efficient solutions, as there is a high and urgent need for them.
- “Why does climate action matter?” – UN Environmental Programme
- “Mark Carney: Investing in net-zero climate created value and rewards” – UN
- “Climate Crimes” – The Guardian
- “On climate change, oil and gas companies have a long way to go” – Vox Magazine
- “Carney’s ‘net-zero’ investment firm has billions in coal and oil sands projects” – Unearthed
- “New BP boss Bernard Looney pledges net zero emissions by 2050” – Financial Times