And why not “Appoint the CEO of a tobacco company to oversee a conference on cancer drugs” ? The announcement in mid-January of the appointment of Sultan Al-Jaber to the presidency of COP28, organized in the United Arab Emirates, sparked criticism from certain NGOs. It has also raised a debate as crucial as it is inflammable on the place of fossil fuels in the energy transition. At the head of the Emirati oil company Adnoc and its little sister dedicated to renewables, Masdar, the Minister of Industry of the host country of the UN climate conference defends “a pragmatic approach” of this challenge, on which the future of the planet depends. A vision of transition “realistic and solution-oriented”he pleads, citing renewable and carbon-free energies, but also gas and oil.
For oil and gas companies, the poison is in the recipe for the antidote. Too bad if the scientific consensus recalls that the objective of limiting the rise in temperature to 1.5°C by 2100 implies giving up on fossil fuels.
A sleight of hand
Antonio Guterres doesn’t usually mince his words when he talks about the climate crisis. Facing the economic and political elites, gathered on 18 January at the World Forum in Davos (Switzerland), the UN Secretary General castigated “fossil fuel producers and those who support them”. They “continue to fight to increase production, knowing full well that their economic model is incompatible with the survival of humanity”, thundered the diplomat, criticizing climate commitments “doubtful” Where “dark” many companies.
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Since the signing of the Paris agreements in 2015, no one can do business without claiming to be in one way or another on the path to “carbon neutrality”. TotalEnergies, Shell and BP now offer liquefied natural gas stamped “carbon neutral”or in part “compensated” through investments in renewables or forest protection. Some of these practices have also led to a criminal complaint and the opening, in December 2021, of an investigation targeting TotalEnergies for “deceptive marketing practices”.
Equipped with climate action plans, the champions of all categories of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere are happy to detail their strategies for reducing their emissions. : decarbonization of extraction, production, transport processes, etc. “It is above all a question of making their own activities ‘neutral’, for example by installing solar panels to supply an oil platform. But it is not a question of extracting less oil, nor of taking responsibility for emissions that will be generated by their customers”, notes Philippe Ciais, specialist in the carbon cycle and member of the Academy of Sciences. One “sleight of hand” which the physicist summarizes thus : “It’s a bit like selling you drugs while ensuring that I have nothing to reproach myself for because my dealers do not use them.”
In a report published at the end of 2022 (in English)the consulting firm Wood McKenzie noted that only 10 of the main firms included in their emission reduction programs a part imputed to the use made by the customer of this famous fuel. However, this consumption represented “80 to 95% of total emissions generated by oil and gas companies”.
The “dilemma” of our addiction
The efforts praised by the multinationals therefore act on a minimal part of the emissions produced by the oil and gas activity. And the promises of “low-emission oil”, or of “net-zero gas”, “fall under greenwashing”, slice Philippe Ciais. “Today there is no scenario in which we fight against global warming by continuing to emit CO2, and therefore to extract these resources. Even produced in the cleanest way, fossil fuels bequeath us emissions that we will have to manage in the future.”
Climate activists have long insisted that coal, oil and gas should be left underground. Imagining the global energy landscape in 2050, the international energy agency pleaded in 2021 for there to be “no new exploration and exploitation for oil or gas, no new mines or expansion of existing ones”, and this immediately. While the Giec recalled, in its latest publication, the need to abandon coal (–95% by 2050) and to reduce our consumption of oil and gas by 60% and 45%.
In this respect, the controversial extension of the Lutzerath mine in Germany, or the few 425 extraction projects identified in 2022 as “climate bombs”, in a study published in the journal Energy Policy (in English), are incompatible with the fight against global warming. Projects justified by a growing demand for hydrocarbons, explains Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega, director of the Energy and Climate Center at Ifri. “We are witnessing a slight drop in demand in OECD countries, but it is rising sharply in emerging countries and the trend is not about to stop”, he notes, pointing “a dilemma between the climate emergency and the need to ensure the security and stability of economies around the world”. Stopping all investments would cause a surge in barrel prices which, according to the specialist, “would lead to the collapse of the economy of many countries with consequences, they too, disastrous”.
According to him, reducing production implies reducing demand. “Since the emerging countries must increase their energy consumption, so we, in Western countries, must reduce our consumption of hydrocarbons much faster and much more strongly”, continues the specialist, who calls for “public policies that allow a rise in alternative investments.” Once this transition has taken place in the rich countries, it will be more easily generalizable to the entire planet.
Waiting for, “Any new project in fossil fuels commits the company for decades”recalls Philippe Ciais. “The deposit must then be exploited to its maximum to allow a return on investment.” For the scientist, investing in technologies aimed at continuing to extract fossil fuels “is tantamount to diverting investments that truly decarbonized energies sorely need” and maintains “a logic of inertia”.
“Carry on as if nothing had happened”
Faced with the urgency of rethinking its activity, the oil and gas industry claims to be fighting on two fronts : by investing in alternatives to fossil fuels, with a view to a long-term transition, and in technologies for capturing and storing the CO2 linked to its historical activity.
In its latest report, the IPCC concedes that, in order to limit global warming to 1.5°C, these technologies, currently experimental, will have to be used to capture incompressible greenhouse gas emissions. While some industries – such as cement or steel – are today unable to do without fossil fuels, the oil and gas giants have seen in this observation the opportunity not to “transition”, but to prosper. .
Dyears a survey published on The Intercept (in English), American journalist Amy Weservelt, specialist in “Big Oil”, quotes strategic documents seized by American justice from industry players. Drawn there “a map” consisting of using ‘low carbon solutions’, not to support the end of fossil fuels, but to prolong them. In the program : “Gas, a reduction in emissions related to their operations (…), and carbon capture and storage (CSS), which the industry relies on to continue its activity as if nothing had happened.”
How, in this context, to sort out pragmatism and bad faith? ? Marc-Antoine Eyl-Mazzega distinguishes between different strategies among the national companies and the “majors”, these multinationals present on all continents. For example, the Emirati national company can, thanks to low production costs, invest to reduce its carbon footprint, and communicate accordingly on its “efforts”. The “majors”, they, “are more scrutinized and called upon to meet standards”. They will still have to “accelerate their transformation, ensure that any new investment is compatible with their carbon neutrality objectives and of course, be accountable”, warns the specialist.
Because the mastodons of the fossils entered the transition backwards. Not long ago, ExxonMobil, Total and others questioned the state of scientific knowledge while being aware of the effects of their activities on the climate, according to several recent studies. Other works point to the persistence of powerful lobbying, even in the COPs, where representatives of the oil and gas world provide the first delegation. Next year they even provide the president.