May 2021 was a devastating month for big oil companies. Shell was ordered by the Hague’s Court to cut its global carbon footprint by 45% by the end of 2030 compared to their 2019 levels,ᶦ ExxonMobil was defeated by shareholders on its election of two new members to its 12 strong board, ᶦᶦ and Chevron’s shareholders voted for a substantial reduction in the firm's emissions from the use of its products.ᶦᶦᶦ
As industry giants, notorious for the continuing burning of fossil fuels, their defeats were seen as landmark events for the climate change movement. Roger Cox, the lawyer representing Friends of the Earth against Shell, stated: ‘This case is unique because it is the first time a judge has ordered a large polluting corporation to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement.’ᶦᵛ Though factually correct, this does not mean oil companies are now going to suddenly shift their business strategies. In fact, Shell is appealing the judgement and other oil companies such as RWE and Uniper are suing the Dutch government for billions under the Energy Charter Treaty for phasing out coal-fired power generation by 2030.ᵛ Thus, it’s clear to see that blaming big oil companies for the current climate crisis is not the solution as these companies are first and foremost centred around profit and trade.
Realistically, oil companies should be held accountable for dabbling in an industry where the risks apparent with pumping oil were always openly acknowledged. As early as 1979, an Exxon studyᵛᶦ warned that burning fossil fuels ‘[would] cause dramatic environment effects’ and is a problem which is ‘great and urgent’. However, where there is a demand for oil, there will always be a supply. Even if these oil companies decided to cease operations, others would simply step in to supplement the shortage, or if local governments took control over reducing fossil fuel burning, they could easily outsource their oil imports. The cycle of burning fossil fuels is never ending and contingent on the demand/supply dynamic that the economic model of capitalism instils. The true solution would be to influence a shift in public demand so that leading corporations can alter their resource production to supply renewable energy, electric charging stations, and cleaner petrol alternatives.
More intensive research and public focus needs to be directed towards providing solutions for creating energy alternatives. By providing big oil companies with the resources that enable them to do this, they can be hugely significant in making the production, reliability and availability of electric vehicles easier and reducing our dependency on industries which further rely on the burning of fossil fuels such as shipping and heating. We cannot expect to dismantle the industry giants, but we can demand that they reform the sources of fuel they distribute. Joining forces with oil companies outweighs the benefits of taking them to court, but perhaps taking them to court is the only way to persuade them to join the cause.
ᶦ Daniel Boffey, ‘Court Orders Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.’ (Brussels, 26th May 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/may/26/court-orders-royal-dutch-shell-to-cut-carbon-emissions-by-45-by-2030> accessed 05/07/21
ᶦᶦ Chris McGreal ‘Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price.’ (30th June 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/30/climate-crimes-oil-and-gas-environment> accessed 05/07/21
ᶦᶦᶦ Chris McGreal ‘Big oil and gas kept a dirty secret for decades. Now they may pay the price.’ (30th June 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/30/climate-crimes-oil-and-gas-environment> accessed 05/07/21
ᶦᵛ Daniel Boffey, ‘Court Orders Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030.’ (Brussels, 26th May 2021) < https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/may/26/court-orders-royal-dutch-shell-to-cut-carbon-emissions-by-45-by-2030> accessed 05/07/21
ᵛ Sarah Brown and Arjun Flora ‘Energy giants demand billions from Dutch taxpayers for stranded coal assets.’ (April 28 2021) < https://ember-climate.org/commentary/2021/04/28/dutch-stranded-coal/> accessed 05/07/21
ᵛᶦ 1979 Exxon Memo on Potential Impact of Fossil Fuel Combustion < http://www.climatefiles.com/exxonmobil/1979-exxon-memo-on-potential-impact-of-fossil-fuel-combustion/> accessed 05/07/21