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Oil giants and sustainability campaigners – the new common cause?

by Nik Gowing

Filed under Climate Emergency

  • Shell and Greenpeace share public platform
  • More agreement than disagreement on how to achieve Net Zero
  • Greenpeace says Shell must halt oil & gas exploration
  • Public pressure and expectations increasing
Is a remarkable convergence under way between the global energy giants and the radical protest voices which have long campaigned against them in order to save the planet?

For decades, Greenpeace direct action has assaulted the most vivid symbols of the oil giants, often in headline grabbing ways. But are such visible hostilities now at an end? Does a common end goal of Net Zero emissions mean that this remarkable convergence of purpose is quietly well under way?

The answer seems to be yes.

Shell and Greenpeace agreed to share a one hour virtual platform, brought together by Climate Action. Some of the advance Twitter traffic did not like the idea at all. It accused Greenpeace of selling out to the corporate enemy.

Yet the outcome – which I moderated – confirmed an important realisation. There remain ongoing differences on significant issues. But much more can be achieved on the SDGs and to combat the climate emergency by bringing together organisations campaigning for the same goal of Net Zero.

For two sectoral giants like Shell and Greenpeace to be seen speaking and working together with similar purpose could potentially add massive additional public pressure on governments and corporates for forward movement in the year to COP26.

“We have the best chance if we work together,” Sinead Lynch, UK Chair of Shell told the virtual session. “I really think that the world is moving on. I think we’ve all worked out that the scale of the challenge that we have to address here means that we were all in this together. We are actually fundamentally asking for the same thing across low carbon, technology and new fuels.”

John Sauven, Greenpeace Executive Director, did not disagree. But he emphasised repeatedly that in order to be taken seriously on sustainability oil giants like Shell must halt exploration. “We are saying, quite clearly, we need to get out of new oil and gas. We need to stop new developments of oil and gas. We need to phase out the internal combustion engine.”

This was reinforced by responses to a live poll question tabled by Shell itself.

Shell asked the 1,700 registered for the event: in terms of achieving net zero which area would energy company action make most impact? Those of who voted responded as follows: investing in CCUS (carbon capture, utilisation and storage) 8%; invest more in renewables 37%; invest to accelerate immobility 6%; stop producing oil and gas, 48%.

The answers backed Greenpeace more than Shell.

Sinead Lynch responded: “Suppose that we just stop exploring, and we just focus on the reserves we have got. We can reduce production from the North Sea quite quickly. But what would that achieve? We’d still have millions of homes heated by natural gas, millions of cars on the road driving petrol and diesel. We would import more from higher intensity basins in Russia. But also we would be bringing in energy. It just has to be managed properly and supply has to move with demand.”

The third voice on the panel, Sean Spiers, executive director of the Green Alliance, reinforced the poll results: “It’s absolutely essential to stop exploiting new oil and gas. Unless we put a stop to prospecting for new oil and gas fields we will find it impossible to control global temperature rises. And that’s the real challenge for Shell. And that’s why John will use the term greenwash. I don’t think it’s greenwash. But I don’t think it’s quite what the world needs. We’ve just really got to stop extracting more fossil fuels, otherwise we’re kind of done for.”

Greenpeace made clear that Shell must go far beyond its newly published policy document Our Response to Climate Change. It says the energy giant’s emphasis on a future role for CCS (carbon capture and storage) especially is effectively meaningless. “It is peanuts. It wouldn’t even register if you were trying to counter it.” And instead of new exploration for oil and CCS, Shell should focus big time on hydrogen. “Green hydrogen made from renewable energy is tomorrow’s oil,” said John Sauven.

Shell’s response on CCUS is that the Greenpeace view is far too narrow. “This is very far from business as usual. We see carbon capture and storage as critical to decarbonise industries. But we don’t have an alternative technology to do so,’ said Sinead Lynch.

There were a lot of technical exchanges on critical issues like the timeline for achieving Net Zero, future prospects for green and blue hydrogen, plus biofuels and the destruction of forests. But what also emerged were two other pointers to public expectations and the pressures building.

For its poll question, Greenpeace asked: to reach a 45% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030 requires energy companies to massively reduce the production of new oil, coal and gas. 94% of respondents said yes, 6% no.

The Green Alliance asked: How far does COVID-19 and the economic crisis, increase the likelihood of meaningful action to tackle climate change? Almost 80% said either definitely or hopefully.

So how strong are the new positives and convergence?

“I’m not going to disagree with everything that Shell is doing. Obviously not,” responded John Sauven for Greenpeace. “If Shell invested in an offshore wind farm. That’s absolutely great. If Shell calls for the phasing out of the internal combustion engine by 2030. That’s absolutely great. But I think that we have got some serious and fundamental differences here.”

Serious and fundamental differences, yes. But while they did not say this publicly, in our pre-session discussion both leaders agreed there is now at least a 75% convergence on policy between Shell and Greenpeace. And that figure is rising.

What message did Shell take away from this unique public sharing of a platform with Greenpeace and the Green Alliance?

“It’s only by working together, all of us and arguing - and we will always disagree on pieces of this - but I am really heartened when I read something from Sean or John and we are on the same page in terms of what we were saying to governments. It can only be a good thing.”

We should look forward to the next stages of convergence. They will be fascinating.

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