Enter the bad guys

“We are the bad guys. I am happy to be a bad guy. But the world is not black and white… and clearly oil and gas companies have to be part of the solution.”

These were the words of Total chief executive Patrick Pouyanne when challenged on whether there was any irony to be found in the 16 October announcement, signed by the chief executives of 10 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, that they support efforts to keep global warming within a 2°C rise.

The question, and Pouyanne’s response, summed up the mood at the Paris event. Any oil and gas company that attempts to be part of the solution to the climate problem inevitably leaves itself open to charges of greenwash and hypocrisy, especially if its commitment to renewables then waivers.

Is it easier for large energy companies to hunker down, take the flak and remain the “bad guys”? Perhaps. That may be part of the reason why ExxonMobil and Chevron have not signed up to the initiative, and why Chinese companies have so far been wary.

And there were clearly varying degrees of commitment to the cause within a panel of eight chief executives who were present at the event in Paris, with the resulting joint statement rivalling some UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) climate deals for linguistic vagueness and woolly declarations.

Even an agreement on language related to carbon pricing proved impossible to achieve. And some of the chief executives, including Pouyanne and BP’s Bob Dudley, bravely fielded questions on stranded assets, while others would not even acknowledge the issue.

That is why it was funny when Dudley joked that the greatest achievement of the event was just getting the eight chief executives in one room at the same time — it rang painfully true. But despite widespread criticism from environmental NGOs, which highlighted a lack of any caps on emissions or evidence of concrete action, his joke did not diminish the achievement.

In fact, in some ways the pledge by the 10 chief executives is only six years behind the UNFCCC on the issue. After all, a commitment to the 2°C target — without any concrete cap on emissions, timeline for phase out or effective policy tools — was about all the negotiators at the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit were able to muster.

Of course, the companies are acting partially out of self-interest. They want a carbon price to favour gas over coal in the medium term, and they want a place at the table where the regulatory framework that will govern their future is shaped. And, of course, they want the public to know about it.

But that does not necessarily undermine their avowals of commitment. With all projections of global demand for energy rising, and with all major countries unwilling to put any constraints on their economies, it increasingly appears that the bulk of the answers to the questions posed by climate change lie in technology. Energy efficiency, biofuels, demand-side management, cheaper renewables and — if it can be widely deployed — carbon capture and storage, all have their parts to play. And only one sector can provide those solutions: industry. Climate advocates need these companies on board.

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