Big Oil’s Net-Zero Plans Show the Hard Limits of Carbon Offsets


If you can’t pay the interest on your debts, an IOU isn’t going to be enough to save you from bankruptcy.

That’s the problem with the succession of net zero commitments emerging from companies and governments. The carbon emissions generated by our current industrial and agricultural systems are going to lead to a disaster far worse than insolvency without vigorous efforts to reduce them. If promises to offset them with carbon-absorbing activities are to be worth anything, they’re going to need to be more than aspirational words on paper.

Take Royal Dutch Shell Plc. It was the first oil major to make a commitment to cutting the emissions from its customers — known as “Scope 3 emissions” —  making it one of the most progressive oil companies on climate. 

That was 2017.  Last month, Shell set out its latest plan to get to net zero. The big reveal left climate experts mostly unimpressed, in part because the company plans to increase its total fossil fuel output in the near term by boosting gas production, and the majority of its capital expenditure will continue to go towards oil and gas. To get to net zero while doing that, it plans to capture 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year via “nature-based” offsets by 2030.

Days after Shell’s announcement, Italian oil company Eni SpA updated its own net-zero strategy. A Greenpeace UK study of its earlier 2019 pledge to use forest conservation to offset its emissions said such a promise would have to account for as much as 6% of the world’s capacity to absorb carbon in forest land. Eni’s update increased its 2030 forestry offset target by a third, to 40 million tons of CO2 per year.

Plenty of other companies and governments have jumped on the bandwagon. A tracking project from American University lists dozens of large companies that, as of December 21, cited carbon dioxide-removal (CDR) in their pledges for climate neutrality. They include Apple Inc., Walmart Inc., British Airways Plc, and many of their peers. It’s not just companies. The European Union’s promise to cut emissions 55% by 2030 has been criticized for relying in part on land-based “carbon sinks” to soak up some of the pollution.

As more companies follow suit, the total volume of offsets they rely on will quickly exceed the ability of the planet to provide them. Without more concrete near-term actions, “net zero” risks becoming a fairytale providing cover for the heavy emitting industries, particularly those in the fossil fuel sector who have aggressively blocked climate action. 

Most emissions-reduction scenarios indicate that we need to see significant cuts in our annual rate of greenhouse gas emissions to about half their current level from now till 2030. Even if human emissions fall quickly to zero by mid-century, however, most scenarios indicate that some CDR will be necessary to keep a relatively safe lid on warming. “There are very, very few pathways where nature-based solutions or carbon capture and utilization sequestration do not play a role,” Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said at the company’s strategy update. That’s true, but the size and role of those and other negative emissions is a very sensitive matter in the pathways he refers to.

That cautiousness is mostly due to the well-documented risks and limitations around every method of removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Some, such as carbon capture & storage combined with bio energy, are expensive and complex industrial processes. Others, such as planting trees to capture CO2, involve trade-offs when land could be needed for other purposes, like growing food.

Fears that CDR would become a loophole in net-zero plans have lurked for years. Experts worried that unrealistic assumptions about negative emissions were being baked into advice policymakers were receiving from scientists.

There’s work underway to impose more rigor on the flurry of aspirational pledges. The Science-Based Targets initiative, the closest thing to an arbiter of emissions reductions plans for companies, is aiming to release guidance on net zero ahead of the COP26 climate conference in November. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which has been developing standards for measuring and managing emissions since 1998, plans to publish final guidance on negative emissions by next October.

One popular proposal suggests having each net-zero pledge break out how much will come from actually reducing emissions, versus the portion of emissions the company or government assumes it will offset.

That would be welcome, but also doesn’t necessarily give enough useful information on ambition, as Stephen Smith, executive director of the Oxford Net Zero initiative, argued in a recent comment in Nature Communications Earth & Environment. What would be more helpful, he writes, is information on three things: how CDR will be achieved, how emissions will be kept permanently out of the atmosphere, and near-term targets.

That last point may be most important. The most urgent task is emissions reductions over the next decade, especially from burning fossil fuels. Smith’s analysis also shows that, in the research scenarios, the emissions reductions achieved in 2030 are a better indicator of a lower warming level than the date of hitting net zero, or the presence of negative emissions. CDR is not a solution we can simply dial-up if we feel like it. All methods have hard limits, uncertainties, and known shortcomings, from scientific questions about trees’ ability to remove CO2 as the world heats up, to human rights questions about use of land, to the sheer energy-intensity and experimental nature of removing CO2 from the air.

Many of the recent net-zero commitments, however, behave as though these constraints don’t exist. What is discretionary is how fast we eliminate fossil fuel use and transition to clean energy. We have great deal of visibility about how to do that, and agency to make it happen.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.