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Sensemaker: Fossil fools

Sensemaker: Fossil fools

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The European Union agreed on a major climate change law that binds member states to dramatically cut their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Jair Bolsonaro asked the Biden administration for $1 billion in exchange for reducing deforestation in the Amazon by 40 per cent.
  • The International Energy Agency predicted a major surge in carbon emissions this year as the world moves out of Covid pandemic restrictions.

Fossil fools

Thirty of the UK’s largest listed companies committed to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The companies are big – their market capitalisation adds up to £650 billion – and some commitments are even tougher. Vodafone, for example, committed to net zero emissions from its own activities, as well as from the energy it purchases, by 2030. But the real business is cutting emissions from the carbon heavies.

It’s companies like Shell, BP, and Evraz – the top three emitters – that hold the greatest potential for achieving our climate goals. Here’s how they’re doing:

  • Shell didn’t sign up to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign, but it outlined its own plans to go net zero by 2050. In its last reporting year, it emitted 72 million tonnes of carbon.
  • BP, likewise, didn’t make the UN pledge but has its own plans to go carbon neutral by 2050. It emitted 45.5 million tonnes of carbon last year.
  • Evraz, more modestly, committed to keeping its carbon emissions per unit of steel produced steady. It emitted 43.4 million tonnes of carbon.

Put together, the three companies emit almost three times more carbon than all UK households. Even smallish cuts to the companies’ emissions would have a large impact on global warming and may be easier to achieve than changing the behaviour of 27.5 million households. 

There’s progress. Shell cut its emissions by eight million tonnes – 10 per cent – and BP by 8.9 million tonnes – 16.4 per cent – between reporting periods. That is, the cuts to their emissions over a single year equate to almost a third of all UK household annual emissions. The companies, of course, recognise their potential for impact.

“As one of the world’s leading steel companies,” Evraz chief executive Alexander Frolov wrote in a statement, “we understand and recognise the importance of climate action.” But in the year before Frolov’s statement, Evraz increased its carbon emissions by 220,000 tonnes – the biggest absolute increase by any of the UK’s largest 100 listed companies – because, it told Tortoise, it had to remove methane, another greenhouse gas, from its mines. 

And Evraz isn’t alone in increasing emissions. According to a Tortoise analysis, 14 of the UK’s biggest listed companies increased their absolute emissions over the most recent reporting period. Seven of those companies set public targets to reduce emissions.

Tortoise asked the companies why, despite their public targets, their emissions rose. For Ocado, the online shopping company that includes groceries, there was a surge in demand for deliveries during the Covid pandemic. For most companies, though, it was the acquisition of more buildings or other companies.

As far as our planet is concerned, it’s the total of global emissions that matters. If one company divests from fossil fuels by selling its carbon-emitting assets to another company, it’s simply transferring its emissions elsewhere, perhaps to one of the 70 companies that didn’t sign up to the UN’s Race to Zero campaign. For company targets to be useful, they need to be much broader and more consistent. Otherwise it’s swings and roundabouts.

The full rankings of the Tortoise Responsibility 100 Index, including a special comparison of companies based purely on environmental sustainability, will be released at the Tortoise Climate Summit on 29 April.

Join us then  to find out how the UK’s biggest businesses stack up on sustainability, and how to speed up our journey to net zero.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Environmental racism
A corner of southwest Detroit, district 48217, once attracted tens of thousands of Black people fleeing segregation in the South. They were drawn to the area’s booming automobile industry. “It used to be a utopia,” resident Theresa Landrum said, in an interview with Sky News. “But not any more.” The area is now home to more than two dozen pollutant-producing facilities owned by multiple companies. Residents said the pollutants contributed to a high local incidence of premature births, respiratory issues like asthma, and cancer. Landrum, a cancer survivor, said more than 12 people on her block died of the disease. “Environmental racism has a lot to do with where we live,” Landrum added, “and where these factories and these industries are located.” 

New things technology, science, engineering

Coal on a roll
In all the excitement about green tech and renewables, it’s easy to forget that large parts of the world still depend on dirty fuels. The demand for the dirtiest of them all, the greatest source of carbon emissions – coal – is, in fact, soaring. The International Energy Agency predicted coal demand will rise by 4.5 per cent this year to meet electricity demand, which was suppressed during the Covid pandemic. More than 80 per cent of the growth will be concentrated in Asia; 50 per cent in China alone. “This is a dire warning that the economic recovery from the Covid crisis is currently anything but sustainable for our climate,” Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, said.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Mother earth
A group of healthcare professionals and NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, wrote to Joe Biden, asking him to address the impact of the climate crisis on maternal and infant health. Letters, treaties and summits are increasing along with the global temperature, but, as this letter revealed, the climate crisis’ health effects are often neglected. Pregnancy is associated with higher respiratory rates and increases in blood and plasma volumes, which increase women’s vulnerability to heat, smoke, air pollution, and other risks. The stress of extreme weather events, like wildfire, flooding or hurricanes, may all have impacts on foetal development. Newborns and children are especially vulnerable to heat and air pollution. Some legacy we’ve left them.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

University fuel
The Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, a group of Oxford University students and alumni, found the institution received more than £11 million from fossil fuel companies since 2015. Its report, based on a number of Freedom of Information requests and publicly available data, is part of the campaign’s mission to get the university to use its “enormous financial and cultural clout for environmental justice in a changing climate”. It’s not going well: the university, which said it will eliminate its carbon footprint by 2035, accepted a £100 million donation from the petrochemical giant Ineos. “Partnerships with industry allow the university to apply its knowledge to real challenges of pressing global concern,” a spokesperson for the university said, “with funding often going directly into research into climate-related issues and renewables.” It’s a reminder that we depend on fossil fuel companies for energy, funding, and solutions to the climate crisis.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Summit happening
Joe Biden will today open a two-day virtual summit on the climate to 40 world leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping. Biden pledged that the US will cut its greenhouse gas emissions by nearly half by the end of the decade. It’s a big pledge and it’s meant to galvanise Biden’s invitees. But it would require Americans to change the way they live, from heating their homes, to what they buy and how they drive. And there are doubts that Biden can enact the aggressive domestic policies that would achieve this goal. At the moment, he’s trying to push an infrastructure package, with plans for heavy spending on electric vehicle stations and transmission lines for wind and solar power, through Congress. Some Republicans offered support for it in exchange for highways, bridges, and no climate provisions.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Ellen Halliday

Kim Darrah

Paul Caruana Galizia

Photographs by Getty Images

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