Claims that oil and gas giants like BP and ExxonMobil are greenwashing companies are backed by new research revealing increased climate pledges are not matched by concrete actions. 

The clean energy claims made by major oil and gas companies have not been supported by any concrete climate action or investments, proving that accusations of greenwashing are well-founded, according to a new and comprehensive study. 

The academic research, which is published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, examined the clean energy transition activity at oil and giants ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell and BP, which together are responsible for more than 10% of global carbon emissions since 1965. The study analysed and compared data collected between 2009 and 2020 and found that there’s been a marked increase in discourse and the use of keywords such as “climate”,  “low-carbon” and “transition” during the period.

This has particularly been evident with BP and Shell, where the former has mentioned the words “climate change” 326 times in its 2020 annual report, compared to its 22 uses in 2009. Companies have also increased pledges on decarbonisation and climate action as part of their business strategies, but this however, was not supported by any concrete actions. 

“The companies are pledging a transition to clean energy and setting targets more than they are making concrete actions”, the researchers write in the study. In fact, oil and gas companies’ business model continues to depend on fossil fuels.

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Based on the collected data, the report concluded that there is no real evidence of a transition towards clean energy business models and that company claims do not align with their actions. On the contrary, evidence points that companies are increasing rather than decreasing oil exploration. BP and Shell have promised to reduce investments in fossil fuel extraction projects, but both increased their acreage for new exploration in recent years. 

Companies are also found to have made rather insignificant or unclear investment on clean energy despite their pledges. While none of the companies directly releases data on their clean energy investments, according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, ExxonMobil has reportedly only spent 0.2% of its annual capital expenditure on clean energy, whereas BP dedicated 2.3%. 

“Until actions and investment behaviour are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded,” the researchers say.

Greenwashing refers to when a company or organisation spends more time and money on marketing themselves as being sustainable than on actually minimising their environmental impact. It is essentially a deceitful advertising method that takes up valuable time and resources in the fight against climate change.

The four oil companies analysed in the study have long been accused of greenwashing their actions. In December 2019, an environmental group lodged a complaint against BP for misleading the public with its advertisements that focused on its low-carbon energy products, when more than 96% of its annual spend is on oil and gas. ExxonMobil have also been criticised for suggesting its experimental algae biofuels could one day reduce transport emissions in advertisements.