Big Oil’s expected $5-trillion investment will blow past global climate goals

Free to pollute.
Free to pollute.
Image: Reuters/Raheb Homavandi
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If oil companies aren’t reined in, they are going to put shareholders at risk. That’s the conclusion of “Overexposed,” a new report published by the watchdog group Global Witness on Apr. 23.

Big Oil is expected to spend $4.9 trillion over the next decade extracting oil and gas from existing fields and developing new ones, according to data from the consultancy Rystad Energy. Burning all those fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would mean blowing past the carbon budget available under the Paris climate agreement.

Global Witness calculated fossil-fuel extraction based on estimations from Big Oil’s existing and new fields. It then compared it to what’s feasible under different scenarios that would keep global average temperatures from rising above 1.5°C relative to pre-industrial times. That’s the more ambitious target of the Paris climate agreement, which requires to keep global warming “well within 2°C.” A UN report published in October found that keeping climate change at the lower end of warming could result in $30 trillion in savings.

As the impacts of climate change increase, Global Witness believes that governments would be forced to cut demand for fossil fuels. The upshot could be that the investments Big Oil is making today would end up as stranded assets, which would lower the value of these companies and hurt investors.

Publicly held companies are coming under increased pressure to align with climate goals. Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Equinor are all facing resolutions from activist shareholders to hit climate targets. Large investors like Legal & General and Norway’s sovereign wealth fund are looking to divest from companies that aren’t doing enough.

The Global Witness analysis has mostly excluded the use of technologies such as carbon removal or carbon capture and storage (CCS), which allow trapping carbon dioxide from the air or, at a lower cost, from industrial sites and power plants. CCS technologies can allow the use of fossil fuels but with lower or zero carbon footprint.

“We haven’t written them off completely,” says Murray Worthy, a senior campaigner for Global Witness. “The fact is these technologies have failed to scale up.”

Other experts say that problem with CCS is not the technology, which has been in commercial use for decades. Instead, there isn’t always a business model to support the use of CCS. If a sufficient carbon price—say in the form of a tax—were to be adopted, it would create an incentive for companies to invest in the technology.

It’s possible to lower the cost of CCS technology without a direct carbon price. Tax credits for wind and solar power have helped once-expensive technologies become cheaper. In 2018, the US adopted similar tax credits for CCS deployment. Such government funding could prove crucial support, according to the advocacy group Global CCS Institute.