Exxon’s new 2050 net-zero ‘ambition’ ignores 80% of its emissions

January 19, 2022, 9:49 AM UTC

ExxonMobil announced yesterday a brand new “ambition” to hit net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, becoming the last of the world’s oil giants to offer some commitment to the idea of a carbon-neutral future.

On the surface, that’s a significant about-face for a company that has historically downplayed the devastating and accelerating effect fossil fuel production has on climate change.

Only last year, the oil major suffered a bruising defeat in its battle to squash activist shareholders who wanted to hold the company to a higher standard of environmentalism. But campaigners are unconvinced that Exxon’s pledge will make a meaningful difference.

For starters, the pledge only covers Exxon’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions, which is the pollution caused by Exxon’s direct operations—such as running the electricity in its offices, or letting methane leak from its oil fields. But, like all oil companies, the overwhelming majority of Exxon’s carbon emissions fall under the Scope 3 category: emissions produced by its customers.

According to Exxon’s own data, 80% of carbon emissions that can be traced back to the company come from Scope 3 sources. That’s a no brainer: oil produces carbon when it’s burned. Without pledging to tackle Scope 3 emissions, Exxon’s 2050 “ambition” is not nearly ambitious enough.

Admittedly, some might argue it’s unreasonable to hold a producer accountable for how its consumers use its product. After all, if all of Exxon’s customers mind their own Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions, that would naturally resolve the issue of Exxon’s Scope 3 emissions.

The debate over whether consequence of use is the responsibility of a product’s supply side or demand side is hashed and rehashed in the regulation surrounding gun, drug, and cigarette manufacturers. Yet, last year, a Dutch court ruled that Shell was legally responsible for its Scope 3 emissions, setting a precedent for holding oil companies accountable for the consequences of oil production. Shell is appealing the ruling. But, for my own two cents, companies absolutely should be held accountable for Scope 3 emissions.

Forcing oil majors to consider their Scope 3 emissions increases the number of industries pouring resources into a shared problem, where Company A’s Scope 3 emissions overlap with Company B’s Scope 1 and 2 emissions. The issue of pollution is then no longer solely a supply or demand side problem: it’s both.

Eamon Barrett
– eamon.barrett@fortune.com


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