Straggling on climate change no longer an option—Big Oil faces its reckoning

May 27, 2021, 3:03 PM UTC

Yesterday was a good day for the planet. Three of the largest oil and gas companies were forced to make radical changes to curb their carbon emissions as the climate emergency pushed shareholders and a Dutch court to turn their backs on Big Oil.

On Wednesday, both Exxon Mobil Corp and Chevron Corp suffered shareholder rebellions from environmentally-minded investors pushing for lower emissions, while a Dutch court ordered Royal Dutch Shell plc to slash its emissions at a faster pace.

Climate inaction no longer seems like an option and with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investors growing in strength and number, the pressure will likely grow.

At the current pace, global ESG assets are on track to exceed $53 trillion by 2025, over a third of the $140.5 trillion total assets under management, according analysis by Bloomberg Intelligence.

And that makes yesterday a harbinger for a cleaner future.

Yesterday’s news

In two votes that chose sustainability over profit, Chevron shareholders voted 61% in favor of a proposal to cut emissions generated by the use of their company’s products. Meanwhile, its closest rival ExxonMobil lost two director seats to Engine No. 1, a tiny activist hedge fund, which holds a $50 million stake in the $250 billion company. Engine No.1 says it’s capable of pushing the company in a more sustainable direction.

The votes at ExxonMobil and Chevron cap a historic proxy season for investor activism within the oil and gas industry. Earlier in the season, three climate-related proposals received majority votes at ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66.

Tim Smith, Director of ESG Shareowner Engagement at Boston Trust Walden, called the ExxonMobil shareholder swing, an investor led “climate revolt.”

“The votes at the Exxonmobil annual meeting are both historic and unprecedented. There has never been a previous occasion where investors voted to install new board members and unseat incumbents based on ESG criteria,” he told Fortune.

Meanwhile across the ocean, a Dutch court ordered Shell to dramatically cut its greenhouse gas emissions in a landmark climate case that could make oil and gas majors responsible for their carbon pollution by law.

While the companies themselves are pushing back against these new measures, citing potential effects on their future operations, earnings and cashflows, popular opinion is moving in the other direction.

Anne Simpson, chair of the world’s largest investor engagement initiative Climate Action 100+, said in a statement: “Climate change is a financial risk and as fiduciaries, we need to ensure that boards are not just independent and diverse, but climate competent.”

Tomorrow’s world

“This is an unprecedented action by investors, putting all companies on notice that climate inaction can cost a board member their job,” Andrew Logan, Senior Director of Oil and Gas at Ceres, said in a statement.

“The center of power at ExxonMobil and Chevron has truly shifted, and oil and gas companies can no longer afford to ignore outside pressure to act on the climate crisis,” he added.

Markus Gehring, an expert in sustainable development law at the University of Cambridge, told Fortune the ruling shows that the Paris Agreement, set out to stop the global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels, has directly influenced the legal interpretation of domestic law.

But there is long way to go yet and it remains to be seen if the activist stance of the Dutch court will catch on. “U.S. state courts have so far ruled that it is not in their jurisdiction,” analysts at UBS said in a research note, adding that in the world’s biggest economy, climate concerns may be seen as a matter for the Federal courts or government policy.

The recent upheaval comes after a radical report was published by the International Energy Agency saying that new oil and gas exploration projects must end this year in order to bring down CO2 emissions fast enough to reach net zero by 2050.

And today, a new climate update issued by the World Meterological Organization said “there is about a 40% chance of the annual average global temperature temporarily reaching 1.5°C above the pre-industrial level in at least one of the next five years – and these odds are increasing with time.”

It is a time of reckoning. As governments and people begin to play their part to curb climate change, it looks like big corporations are finally having to get on board too.

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