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Oil companies are being slated for missing green targets while posting record profits. What’s the lesson for aviation?
I’ve now been in the sustainability space long enough to remember past grand green promises made by fossil fuel CEOs. And to then see them turn to nothing.
Three years ago, in February 2020, I was writing a post for SimpliFlying about the protests around BP’s sponsorship of London's British Museum. That article warned that what we were seeing then could be the airline industry’s future, unless we accelerate the pace of decarbonisation.
At the time, I remember reading about the appointment of BP’s new CEO Bernard Looney, who painted a radical low-carbon vision for the oil giant. Looney talked about the need to “reinvent” BP”, saying that under him the company would be “reimagining energy as we know it.”
Meanwhile BP’s ‘meet the CEO’ page shows Looney saying that he wants to “engage directly with society, especially younger people and those who disagree with BP.”
Looney is also quoted as saying, “we know the world is not on a sustainable path. We want a rapid transition. Society has to deliver the Paris goals.”
Sounds impressive. Except the current reality, three years on, doesn’t quite match it.
This comes as (climate journalist) Louise Boyle’s excellent climate newsletter today told us that BP will be “dialling back plans to cut its carbon emissions.” Instead of a 35-40% emissions cut by 2030, we are now looking at a more modest 20-30% cut - so let’s call it 20%.
As Louise says, the wider context of this is the “big oil bonanza”, where the fossil fuel giants have been posting record profits.
Turning to BP’s competitor, Shell, the company has been especially criticised for claims that it is exaggerating its green energy investments and commitments.
Greenpeace put Shell's profits from fossil fuel-related activities into perspective in a tweet where it said that “if you earned £40,000 a day from when Jesus was born to the present day, you would still not make as much as Shell did in profits last year.”
To make its point, Greenpeace then occupied one of Shell’s North Sea Platforms, and is currently using the hashtag #makeshellpay on social media, the demand being that oil giants should pay more taxes to account for climate change and the high energy costs faced by consumers.
Meanwhile, environmental legal advocacy group Client Earth is taking Shell’s directors to court in the UK for failing to manage potential risks to its business, which includes climate change. According to Reuters, a number of institutional investors are actually supporting the claim. That includes pension fund Nest, who Reuters quoted as saying, “We hope the whole energy industry sits up and takes notice.”
The investors hold twelve million of Shell’s seven billion shares, so a small minority. Yet, the very fact that major investment and pension funds are willing to put their name behind something like this is significant - being associated with a polluter is bad for business.
At the same time that the UK legal action is taking place, NGO Global Witness has submitted a complaint to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), on the basis that Shell “overstates its investments in renewable energy by including gas-related activities.”
What’s the relevance to aviation?
As our 2022 greenwashing report said, aviation is increasingly perceived as part of the wider fossil fuel industry.
For climate activists, there’s little difference between a big airline and an oil giant. One extracts fossil fuels, the other burns them.
And in fact, in the same week that Shell’s North Sea Oil platform was occupied, protestors disrupted the “Corporate Jet Investor London” conference, storming the stage during the session titled (appropriately enough), “Is Business Aviation Under Attack.”
Private Jets have come under particular criticism as a symbol of so-called luxury emissions, but airlines have also been on the receiving end of climate change protests.
And just like with the fossil fuel giants, climate change groups don’t believe the ‘green’ promises and pronouncements made by airlines. For example, last year climate pressure group Possible released a study claiming that airlines had missed or postponed 49/50 published climate targets (it’s worth adding a caveat that these targets were set in some cases 10-20+ years ago).
So what’s the take-out from this:
The Internet has a long memory. Absolutely, set ambitious goals. There is no other way to reach net zero in the next 20-30 years. But you will be called out if you fail to meet them, and that will be reputationally damaging
As a result, commit to programmes such as the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi) near-term targets, showing what you are doing in the next decade, as well as in 2050 (when your current CEO will almost certainly be retired).
Prepare to have any targets you announce held up to scrutiny, not only by activists but by the media. To preempt this, produce a progress report every year with actual figures that shows how you are doing in meeting targets and what corrective action you are taking in case it looks like you are falling short.
As the investors supporting the Shell court case show, being linked with climate change is not good business.
And we’re starting to see major corporations target employee travel as a way to reduce scope three emissions. The Travel Smart campaign lists a number of large companies like Adobe and Salesforce that have started to do so.
The worst thing, however, you can do is to do nothing. There is a temptation to engage in greenhushing - keep your head under the parapet, say nothing and hope it goes away. It won’t. Saying nothing won’t remove the spotlight from you, it will just mean you have no opportunity to talk about all the things you are doing.
Want to know more?
Take a look at our greenwashing report.
Recently we interviewed ten airline sustainability leaders to find out what they are doing. Those interviews include a number of valuable insights on aviation’s road to net zero.
More aviation-specific sustainability updates and analyses can be found in our newsletter.