Greenwashing 101

Fossil fuel companies own green rhetoric betrays an ugly truth — analysis

Oil giants aren’t living up to their clean energy promises.

Originally Published: 
Oil pump extracting fossil fuels at sunset

The world’s largest fossil fuel producers are publicly presenting a transition to a green future amidst a looming climate crisis. But new research suggests that while fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil may publicly champion clean energy, they are quietly maintaining oil and gas production and not investing significantly in renewable energy.

What’s new — Published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, these findings reveal top fossil fuel companies’ green rhetoric does not match their actual business practices and investments, which indicate an apparent unwillingness to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels.

The researchers also conclude four of the leading fossil fuel companies in the U.S. and Europe — Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell — are conducting a widescale form of greenwashing. The companies are publicly pledging clean energy commitments that exceed the company’s actual environmental progress.

Study co-author and associate professor at Kyoto University, Gregory Trencher, tells Inverse that if oil companies were transitioning away from polluting business models, you would expect to see a reduction in fossil fuel reserves and petroleum sales, as well as “aggressive investments” in clean energy.

“But this is not what our results showed,” says Trencher, adding that these companies' “misinformation campaigns and lobbying have [for] decades aimed to stall climate action from policymakers.”

Why it matters — Climate activists and scientists have criticized fossil fuel companies for masking their investments in oil and gas with green rhetoric and weak — or nonexistent — pledges to transition to clean energy.

We finally have robust scientific data to confirm these suspicions, revealing in detail how fossil fuel companies are failing to decarbonize or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

This research could provide greater leverage for individuals and policymakers concerned about fossil fuel producers’ inaction, despite clear links between greenhouse gas emissions from the industry and global warming. A 2019 report revealed 20 fossil fuel companies account for more than one-third of all modern greenhouse gas emissions.

“A study like ours, which has a simple message and solid supporting data, can be very motivating for certain actors working to either incite more government action against the majors or to pressure them more to increase their decarbonization efforts,” Trencher says.

Despite company rhetoric and public commitments about going green, the world’s leading fossil fuel producers are failing to transition toward a clean energy future.


How they made the discovery — The study authors analyzed data from two American and two European fossil companies over a 12-year period between 2009 and 2020.

The study authors analyzed specific keywords pertaining to climate and clean energy in the companies' annual reports. Then, the researchers compared this rhetoric to companies' public pledges, business strategies, and investments about both oil and gas and clean energy, assigning scores based on how well companies' operations transitioned away from fossil fuels — or didn't.

Digging into the details — Over the 12-year period, all four companies showed an increase in green rhetoric in annual company reports, specifically in key phrases like "climate," "low-carbon," and "transition." Though the reports of some companies, like ExxonMobil, contained fewer phrases like "climate change."

The European companies — BP and Shell — displayed a greater willingness to link greenhouse gases from fossil fuels to climate change, as well as pledges to transition away from fossil fuels. In 2019, BP pledged to become net-zero in carbon emissions by 2050 and outlined a concrete strategy.

By contrast, American fossil fuel producer ExxonMobil — which has a history of funding climate change misinformation — only briefly acknowledged the links between fossil fuels and climate change in 2018. ExxonMobil even shifts the responsibility for reducing fossil fuels from producers to consumers, stating in their 2020 report that "production reductions by individual companies would have no impact on demand or consumption of energy..."

But as far as their actions go, all four companies fail to take any sort of meaningful action to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy. Specifically, Trencher says they consistently fail in three areas:

  1. Reducing fossil fuel production and sales
  2. Decreasing fossil fuel reserves
  3. Investments in renewable energy

American companies' investments in renewable energy are shockingly low, with ExxonMobil generating no electricity from clean energy sources — like wind and solar — over the period studied.

A figure from the study comparing renewable energy investments by European companies BP and Shell and American companies Chevron and ExxonMobil.

Li et al

Even European companies that are seemingly more progressive on climate change fail to live up to their stated commitments. Despite pledging in 2019 to become net-zero by 2050, BP increased its acreage of new oil and gas exploration by 58,000 square kilometers that same year. Further, BP's electricity generation from renewable sources is pretty marginal, totaling only 2,000 megawatts, equivalent to two large gas-fired power plants.

Meanwhile, BP, Shell, and Chevron are all amping up natural gas production to transition away from polluting sources like coal, stressing it is part of their "climate mitigation" strategies, according to the PLOS ONE study. But recent reports suggest that natural gas is a far dirtier fuel source than previously realized due to methane leaks. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with 28 to 34 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period.

What's next — Trencher argues for a more significant crackdown on fossil fuel companies that provide "misleading or dishonest claims" about their actual decarbonization efforts, such as in social media advertisements.

For example, in recent years, advertisements from ExxonMobil that tout the benefits of carbon capture technology have made their way onto news podcasts and various social media platforms.

"The city of New York is leading in this area, pointing out the misleading advertisements of so-called clean gasoline at the pump in their litigation against the [companies]," Trencher says.

Beyond tackling the oil giants' messaging, Trencher says investors in these companies must set clear standards for clean energy, in addition to tracking and reporting such investments.

Finally, the researcher advocates for the end of preferential tax treatments and subsidies enabling fossil fuel producers "to profit from extracting and selling energy products that are creating the biggest disaster that humanity has ever faced."

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