One of the consequences of a very busy 2021, particularly with COP26 at the end of the year, is that I was left with a load of half-written markontour blogs that never saw the light of day. One of these was written on the train home from a stimulating TED Countdown event in Edinburgh at the end of October, and reflected on a highly emotive session with Shell chief executive, Ben van Beurden. Looking back at my repeatedly exclamation-mark-punctuated notes, I was reminded how angry I was to hear this man who has enriched himself selling products that put the whole future of humanity at risk, complain it is “unreasonable” that Shell should be required to change its business model faster than it is willing. Then in the last couple of days I watched ‘Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant‘ and listened to a typically great ‘Outrage and Optimism‘ interview with Greenpeace’s Jennifer Morgan, partly about Shell, and resolved to finish the blog.
Van Beurden, a 40 year veteran at Shell, had been invited to speak at TED Countdown – “a global initiative to champion and accelerate solutions to the climate crisis” backed by a slew of climate action leaders I hugely respect – on the strength of his commitment to shift the world’s biggest private oil and gas company into clean energy, and a repeatedly-professed personal desire to “be on the right side of history”.
There was drama and emotion from the outset of the session, because one of van Beurden’s co-panellists, a young Scottish climate activist, Lauren MacDonald, used her opening remarks to explain why she wasn’t prepared to share a platform with an oil and gas executive who was destroying her generation’s future, and walked out after unfurling banners calling for an end to a prospective new Shell oil-field off the north coast of Scotland.
But the real moment of clarity followed. One of MacDonald’s broadsides against van Beurden had been that while he was busy selling Shell’s new green credentials, the companies’ lawyers were challenging a Dutch court ruling that Shell must cut its carbon footprint 45% by 2030.
This pushed a now under-pressure van Beurden into a mask-slipping protestation that Shell was only seeking to overturn the Dutch legal judgement because it was so “unreasonable”.
My notes from the session at this point descend into barely legible scribble punctuated by exclamation marks. How could this man, who minutes earlier had solemnly told us that he wouldn’t be able to look his daughter in the eye unless he could honestly demonstrate he had done his bit to solve the climate crisis, now be arguing that it is “unreasonable” for Shell to be required to cut its emissions in line with the target of the democratically elected government of the country in which the company was founded?
A global 45% cut in emissions by 2030 is the minimum reduction that climate science has conclusively demonstrated is necessary if we are to attain at least a 50/50 chance of stopping runaway climate breakdown and all the billions of ruined lives, destruction and chaos that would ensue.
A 45% reduction by 2030 is actually a bit less than the 55% reduction target of the European Union and the 50%+ goal of the USA, and considerably lower than the 78% reduction target set by the UK, where Shell is headquartered.
What is “unreasonable” about asking the largest privately owned energy corporation in the world, which over a century of operation has caused extraordinary levels of pollution while vastly enriching its shareholders, to cut its emissions to the average level required for everyone else? It seemed to me that if that was all the Dutch court was requiring then Shell was getting off lightly.
Van Beurden’s plea of “unreasonableness”, it turned out, rested on the twin protestations that (1) Shell cannot be held responsible for how its customers use its products; and (2) that if Shell is forced to exit fossil fuels “too quickly” it will become less profitable and so have fewer resources to invest in becoming a clean energy company.
The first part of the argument is essentially to say “it is everyone else who is the problem, not us”: the silly people who buy petrol from oil companies and then burn it to drive their cars, or consume gas to heat their homes, and the complacent governments that fail to stop them doing it. Ben van Beurden agreed that it was “reasonable” for Shell to be required to cut emissions from its own operations by 45%, ie the process of extracting and selling oil and gas, but not to be held accountable for what is done with their products once sold.
It is a breathtakingly brazen piece of duplicity from the chief executive of a company that has poured vast resources into blocking legislation to decarbonise energy systems, and significantly delayed climate action by undermining public understanding of the science.
His second line of defence – that Shell only wants to keep profiting from oil and gas money in order to invest in renewable energy – seems more credible if you look at Shell’s website and recent advertising campaigns, which give the impression that Shell is already primarily a clean energy company. It is also true that Shell invested over $900 million in renewable energy last year.
That, however, is a pittance compared to the $18 billion it invested in oil and gas. Shell is apparently trying to become a clean energy leader by building oil rigs. There is no imminent danger of Shell exiting fossil fuels “too quickly”.
None of this, of course, is news, and Shell is but one easily-identifiable example a thousands of companies from banks to law firms, advertising-hungry media companies to accountants, that continue to generate profits for their shareholders by enabling the sale of products that are destroying the eco-systems upon which all human life depends. ‘People before profits’ is one of the most replicated placards on any climate demonstration now. Anyone who has paid even cursory attention to the climate crisis knows that the richest 5%, who own most of the shares in those companies, are responsible for half of all global carbon emissions.
Neither is it surprising to hear an oil company executive fail to recognise their own complicity in climate breakdown. A decade ago I taught a sustainability class at a prestigious university to a group of energy company executives fulfilling a corporate responsibility commitment to attend. After initially challenging even the most basic facts of climate science, by the end of the week it was satisfying to hear that pretty much everyone agreed that the climate crisis was real and that they were all going to make changes in their home lives. But when I asked who was going to do something differently at work, not a single hand was raised. No-one felt any personal responsibility for what their company did – that was determined by shareholder profit expectations, and if the most profitable thing they could do was sell fossil fuels, then that is what they would continue to do.
I think what made van Buerden’s special pleading so distasteful was that it was preceded by an attempt, both at the TED event and in countless previous media interviews, to convince us not only that as a human being and a father he is just as concerned about climate breakdown as the rest of us, but moreover that he is using his power at Shell to do something about it. As Joe Lycett lightly, but cleverly, draws out in his documentary, this is all part of Shell using its giant marketing machine to assure people that “it’s all OK” – they’ve got this climate thing covered and we can all go back to dreaming about that new car we want to buy.
In reality, what Ben van Beurden and Shell are really teaching us is that we aren’t going to solve the climate crisis by appealing to the personal morality of those who currently profit most from polluting our planet. For as long as it is legal to get rich by enabling more greenhouse gas emissions to be pumped into our atmosphere, then there will be people willing to do it, and moreover to use their considerable wealth and power to fight for the right to do so.
Neo-liberal capitalism lies at the heart of the climate crisis. As the economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, points out, it’s not that our political and economic systems are performing badly. They are doing exactly what they are designed to do – relegate all other needs to the requirement that the GDP grows sufficiently for a small minority to get and/or stay rich.
The job of the climate movement is to change that equation. To make it extremely uncomfortable and unacceptable to enrich yourself through destroying the eco-systems on which we all depend, and rally the majority of people behind political and economic approaches that instead enable human civilisation to survive and thrive.
One thing that has changed since October is that Shell announced it is pulling out of the Cambo oil project that the young campaigners were protesting about in Edinburgh. This is a major victory for climate activism and no doubt the pressure put on van Beurden at TED Countdown played some small part in the decision. There’s a long, long way to go, however, before Shell’s investment strategy is in any way aligned with its green rhetoric.