In the last few decades, many fossil-fuel-producing companies have begun using sustainable or green language more frequently to appeal to more environmentally conscious consumers. This greenwashing is a problem when it is used as a smokescreen to deceive consumers into thinking that a company is more environmentally friendly than it actually is. Consumers are often distrustful of these claims that companies are doing good things for the environment, but that has been difficult to prove. A new study confirms what some have suspected for four specific large oil companies- they are lying to us.
While the globe is attempting to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, much of the world, including the United States, is on track to produce as much or more oil than ever. But according to advertising, companies are becoming more green, looking into sustainable practices, renewable energy, and investing in new technologies. Worldwide, twenty companies are responsible for more than a third of all energy-related carbon emissions since 1965. The top four, Chevron, Exxon, BP, and Shell, account for 10%.
Scientists from Japan looked at how much these four companies used green or sustainable language over twelve years, from 2009 to 2020, and compared changes in language to changes in future planning, investment, and energy production. Are they putting their money where their mouth is, or are they just blowing hot air?
The scientists counted green keywords in literature materials like annual reports, quantified pledges, promises, or concrete actions like investment, and compared these to the financial performance of fossil fuel and renewable energy sources. BP led the group in green energy development, putting 2.3% of their investments into low-carbon emitting sources like biomass, wind, and solar, and generating some wind and solar energy. They generated enough to replace two gas-fired power plants (2000 MW), not enough to solve climate change, but a start. Shell was close behind with 1.33% of their investments going into low-carbon sources. Chevron and Exxon were far behind near .2%, and Exxon didn’t generate any renewable energy, while Chevron did generate a very small amount.
The difference in language between the two groups was noticeable, but not incredibly significant. BP and Shell did use more green language, acknowledged climate science, and made more pledges to de-carbonize eventually. Exxon and Chevron used more defensive language over climate change and also stated ambitions to increase fossil fuel production while also using green language. All four exaggerated the scale of their clean energy investments, using sustainable language more often than they should. Oil and gas reserves continue to increase for all companies, and financial reports showed no evidence that renewable energy is trending upwards enough to curb fossil fuel use.
These companies and more like them are hiding their actual business practices behind green language, pretending to be more environmentally friendly than they are. We need companies to be more transparent and less focused on extracting every penny of profit at the expense of the earth if we are to keep the planet from becoming forever changed.