Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?

“Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5 degrees, because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual” say many climate scientists. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?

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For the last several years all of the big oil companies have been promising they will achieve net-zero emissions in the near future. Some promise 2030, some 2050 and China says they will arrive at net-zero emissions by 2060. But many scientists say big oil is not sincere about this. They say big oil and other large CO2 emitters have no intention of doing anything like this. They say big oil is just trying to keep on doing what it has always done, while pretending to be much greener than they actually are. So here’s the question. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?

Golden Teton Dawn on the Snake River in Wyoming.  As usual I include some images of natural American to remind us of what we need to save.  Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Golden Teton Dawn on the Snake River in Wyoming. As usual I include some images of natural American to remind us of what we need to save.

What exactly are net-zero carbon emissions? When companies promise net-zero emissions they are saying they will balance the CO2 emissions they are causing by taking an equivalent amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. Taking CO2 out of the atmosphere like this is sometimes called negative emissions.

There are several ways companies might accomplish net-zero emissions. They could plant a lot of new forests. Trees, like all plants, absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release O2. Even on the face of it, this would be very difficult to accomplish. The negative emissions that Shell alone would need to offset its fossil-fuel activities would require a new forest the size of Brazil. And this of course would be very, very difficult if not impossible.

Another way of removing CO2 from the atmosphere is using what is called CCS or carbon capture and storage technology. This involves huge machinery that hasn’t really been developed at the scale needed yet. In other words, this means that CSS now works on a small, experimental scale but it has never been tried or tested on the massive world wide scale that would be necessary if it is to be useable.

Aspen lined road in Colorado.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Aspen lined road in Colorado. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions? If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.

Elizabeth Kolbert points out in her recent book “Under White Skies” that there are serious problems is trying to remove carbon from the atmosphere by planting a lot of trees. For one thing it would take a massive amount of new trees to make even a dent in the CO2 that is in our atmosphere. Some CO2 producers talk about a trillion-tree project. Kolbert says that

For the trillion-tree project, something on the order of 3.5 million square miles of new forest would be needed. That’s an expanse of woods roughly the size of the United States, including Alaska.

Take that much arable land out of production and millions could be pushed toward starvation. As O. Táíwò, a professor at Georgetown, put it recently, there’s a danger of moving “two steps backward in justice for every gigaton step forward.”

There is another problem with the trillion tree project: “Trees are dark and they absorb sunlight and heat, so if, say, tundra were converted to forest, it would increase the amount of energy being absorbed by the earth, thus contributing to global warming and defeating the purpose. 

Fires in the Amazon are currently reducing the size of the rain forest.  And drought is killing trees all over the world.  The number of trees in the world is currently dropping rapidly, not increasing.
Fires in the Amazon are currently reducing the size of the rain forest. And drought is killing trees all over the world. The number of trees in the world is currently dropping rapidly, not increasing.

And there is a further problem with using trees to absorb CO2. The trees in forests eventually die and when they die they either rot or burn and then return all the carbon they have absorbed back into the atmosphere. To avoid this problem the trees have to be buried. Kolbert points out that this would involve digging millions of trenches to bury billions of dead trees. Another insane project.

David Wallace-Wells, in his book “Uninhabitable Earth” says that sucking enough CO2 out of the atmosphere to make a difference is basically magical thinking. It just is not going to happen. He says that,

These tools come in two forms: technologies that would suck carbon out of the air (called CCS, for “carbon capture and storage”) and new approaches to forestry and agriculture that would do the same, in a slightly more old-fashioned way (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, or “BECCS”).

According to a raft of recent papers, both are something close to fantasy, at least at present. In 2018, the European Academies’ Science Advisory Council found that existing negative-emissions technologies have “limited realistic potential” to even slow the increase in concentration of carbon in the atmosphere—let alone meaningfully reduce that concentration.

In 2018, Nature (one of the most prestigious science journals) dismissed all scenarios built on CCS as “magical thinking.” It is not even so pleasant to engage in that thinking. There is not much carbon in the air, all told, just 410 parts per million, but it is everywhere, and so relying on carbon capture globally could require large-scale scrubbing plantations nearly everywhere on Earth—the planet transformed into something like an air-recycling plant orbiting the sun, an industrial satellite tracing a parabola through the solar system.”

So, it doesn’t look like there are currently any practical ways of actually getting negative emissions to work at scale in the real world.  Maybe science will come up with something workable in the future.  This is always possible, maybe even probable.  Science often does come up with miracle fixes for lots of problems.  I’m not ruling this out.  For example some oil companies are moving in the direction of green hydrogen which could be hugely helpful.  Here is a post on this very promising technology.

 

Red Saguaro Sunset
Red Saguaro Sunset

However, big oil companies are also looking for less legitimate solutions to their problems of achieving net-zero emissions.  They are being dishonest in some their attempts to find green reservoirs for the carbon they produce.

Not many oil companies are actually planting real forests or even paying someone else to plant real forests for them.  One of the things they are doing is getting involved in all kinds of schemes of double counting forests that have already been counted as carbon reservoirs.  And sometimes even triple or quadruple counting.

One technique for double counting is to buy carbon credits for large forests that have have already been claimed by other companies as carbon sinks.  This is quite common.  Here is an excellent article by Fred Peace on this practice.  

Another common practice is to count all of the forests that have existed for centuries in your couuntry and then count them as part of your companies contribution to negative emissions.  

James Dyke a climate scientist at Exeter University in Britain says that this began in the 1990s when “There was a push to persuade a reluctant U.S. to address climate change by allowing it to count the carbon absorbed by its existing forests as part of its contribution. The idea, says Dyke, was that “if the US managed its forests well,” then the carbon stored there “should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil, and gas.“

Grand Canyon Stump and Sunset.  Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Grand Canyon Stump and Sunset. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions? If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.

This is not really how using forests as carbon credits is supposed to work.  As Dyke says, “We need the natural sink plus mitigation, not just counting the already existing sink as mitigation.”

China is already doing this:

“When China recently committed to achieving net zero by 2060, it said that it would achieve this in part through nature-based solutions. The government’s special envoy of climate, Xie Zhenhua, said in 2019 that nature-based solutions could cut China’s net emissions by a third. Last year, in a Nature paper, Yi Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and colleagues calculated that between 2010 and 2016 China’s forests soaked up the equivalent of 45 percent of its human-made CO2 emissions.”

And the US is doing the same.

“Similarly, the U.S. Forest Service says 11 percent of national CO2 emissions are “offset” by American forests.

Wolfgang Knorr of Lund University in Sweden says that if both the US and China continue counting existing forest as offsets to their emissions, then the whole idea of net-zero emissions has been pretty well destroyed.  He says that 

If the world’s two biggest emitters start claiming that the carbon being absorbed in their existing forests could be an offset against their emissions to achieve net zero, then the scientific basis for net-zero policies to end climate change would swiftly unravel.”

The IEA, the International Energy Agency, used to be a friend of big oil and gas.  But in their last report they said that there is no need for any new oil or gas fields to be developed anywhere in the world.  There is enough renewable energy already existing to quit developing new sources of oil and gas right now and to begin to replace this with renewables.  The IEA director says that if we are really going to implement net-zero emissions there needs to be an immediate global shutdown of coal fired power stations.  And banks also need to immediately quit financing new oil and gas development.

IEA director Fatih Birol says net zero requires a global program for early shutdown of coal-fired power stations, especially in Asia. Yet signatories to net-zero policies, including the government of China, continue to fund new coal-plants, as do major finance houses such as Barclays and BNP Paribas, despite both joining a UN Net-Zero Banking Alliance.

A coal fired plant in China
A coal fired plant in China

Robert Watson, a former chair of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the main world agency reporting on climate change says that the whole idea of net-zero is a trap set by big oil.  He “denounced net zero as a trap set by industrialists and governments to hoodwink the world and lambasted climate researchers for showing “cowardice” in not calling them out.”

Watson and his colleagues admitted that they were at first deceived by this plot.  

“We admit that it deceived us,” he and fellow climate scientists James Dyke of Exeter University and Wolfgang Knorr of Lund University in Sweden wrote. But “the time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society… Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5 degrees, because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual.”

I have to agree with Watson.

It seems very probable to me that net-zero is a total scam to allow big oil to just go on selling oil and coal as long as possible and to allow them to emit as much CO2 as they want.  Right now, no big oil company seems to be slowing down or even planning to slow down, even a little bit.   Big oil is mostly just using net zero to greenwash themselves as fast as they can.

However, don’t let all of this depress you.  We should not greet this news with  despair.  We should not think that big oil is unbeatable, will always pull the wool over our eyes  and will continue to pollute the world far into the future.  I think that big oil’s current attempt to fake net-zero is mostly an indication of their increasing desperation. And this is because big oil is increasing losing the battle to keep on polluting and emitting CO2.

Golden Banner and Twin Sisters in Howard, CO.  Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Golden Banner and Twin Sisters in Howard, CO. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions? If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.

Wednesday, May 23, 2021 is now being called Black Wednesday by big oil and fossil fuel burners  The is because they lost three crucial battles on that day .  Bill McKibben wrote an article on this in The New Yorker.  He says that on May 23rd a set of shareholder votes and court rulings have set back the fortunes of three of the world’s largest oil companies.

On May 23, a court in the Netherlands ordered Royal Dutch Shell to dramatically cut its emissions over the next decade—a mandate it can likely only meet by dramatically changing its business model. 

On the same day, “sixty-one per cent of shareholders at Chevron voted, over management objections, to demand that the company cut so-called Scope 3 emissions, which include emissions caused by its customers burning its products. 

And finally, on May 23, ExxonMobile announced that “shareholders had (over the company’s strenuous opposition) elected two dissident candidates to the company’s board, both of whom pledge to push for climate action.”

Red leaves on a shack in Stonington Maine
Red leaves on a shack in Stonington Maine

And then there is the fact that many big investors are now pulling assets out of fossil fuels and re-investing them renewables.  A lot of the big money is now seeing renewables as the investment of the future while fossil fuels are increasingly being seen as stranded assets much like buggy whips and whale oil in the early 20th century as cars became the investment of choice.

And speaking of cars, electric cars are now being manufactured faster and faster and internal combustion engines are being phased out.   Biden says he will build 50,000 new battery recharging stations in the next few years and all of the big car companies are saying they will build their last internal combustion engine cars in the 2030s.  

The battle over fossil fuels and global warming is a long way from won.  There is still a lot of money to be made in burning fossil fuels and a lot of it will still be burned before this is over.  But big oil is beginning to see writing on the wall and they are wriggling as hard as they can to get off the hook, but the days of fossils fuels and massive CO2 emissions really are on the way out.  

I just hope it happens fast enough to escape the impending tipping points that are looming over the world, especially the ones in the Arctic.

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Tulips in a New Mexico garden
Tulips in a New Mexico garden
Aspens and Blue Sky near Silverjack lake in Colorado.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Aspens and Blue Sky near Silverjack lake in Colorado.Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions? If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.

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More reading on this subject

Big Oils Bad Bad Day

Net-zero emissions: winning strategy or destined for failure

Fossil fuels as stranded assets

“Under a White Sky” by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

 Is green hydrogen a hoax or a real possibility

Many big oil companies are double counting carbon credits

The New Climate War: The fight to take back the planet by Michele Mann is one of the best new books about how big oil is becoming more and more devious in its attempts to keep on producing oil and gas. I highly recommend this book

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More pictures of our beautiful but fragile natural world. If we cannot halt the burning of fossil fuels and the massive emission of CO2 this world will not be with us much longer.

Autumn on the Snake River in the Tetons.  Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Autumn on the Snake River in the Tetons
The Merced River and El Capitan in Yosemite NP.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
The Merced River and El Capitan in Yosemite NP
Creek and autumn leaves in Yosemite National Park.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Creek and autumn leaves in Yosemite National Park. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions? If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Merced River and Pool in Yosemite National Park.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Merced River and Pool in Yosemite National Park
Sandy canyon bottom in Zion National Park.   Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?  If so, this could prevent us from saving places like this.
Sandy canyon bottom in Zion National Park
Electric Busses in Denver Colorado.  Electric vehicles powered. by clear renewable electricity are the future of the world
Electric Busses in Denver Colorado. Electric vehicles powered. by clear renewable electricity are the future of the world
Electric cars are an important part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels.  The plan of this transition is to electrify everything and then produce the electricity needed in the booming renewables industry.
Electric cars are an important part of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels. The plan of this transition is to electrify everything and then produce the electricity needed in the booming renewables industry.

Post summary: For the last several years all of the big oil companies have been promising they will achieve net-zero emissions in the near future. Some promise 2030, some 2050 and China says they will arrive at net-zero emission by 2060. But many scientists say big oil is not sincere about this. They say big oil and other large CO2 emitters have no intention of doing anything like this. They say big oil is just trying to keep on doing what it has always done, while pretending to be much greener than they actually are. So here’s the question. Is big oil lying to us about zero-emissions?

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