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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

Fossil fuel companies must become part of the solution instead of part of the problem


4 min read

Head and shoulders photo of Bob Ward Photo: B Ward
Bob Ward FEI, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Insititute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science

Photo: B Ward

The fossil fuels industry needs to demonstrate greater leadership and should be at the forefront of a rapid but orderly transition to a net zero energy system in the UK and around the world, argues Bob Ward FEI, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Oil, coal and gas companies are currently viewed by many people as a major, if not the biggest, obstacle to the strong and urgent cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions required to avoid dangerous climate change. Many environmental groups argue, persuasively, that the industry cannot be trusted given that its products and services fundamentally depend on the ongoing consumption of fossil fuels. They point to a history of the firms denying the risks posed by GHG emissions and of lobbying against climate policies.


And of course, these companies have been raking in record windfall profits from the energy crisis resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at a time when households and businesses are suffering cripplingly high bills for power and heating. It is therefore little surprise that the latest Ipsos Global Trustworthiness Monitor found that 56% of the British public considered oil and gas companies to be untrustworthy, the highest level among the 21 countries polled.


The industry was also rated the most untrustworthy of 11 sectors of the economy.


Yet there is no denying the dependence of the British public on fossils fuels. The most recent government figures show that 78.3% of the UK’s energy in 2021 was generated from oil, coal and gas. Although low-carbon energy is providing a growing proportion of our energy, particularly electricity, we have seen over the past year what happens when you constrain the supply of fossil fuels without alternatives being able fill in the gap.


Energy prices have spiked, and many households and companies have suffered. This is what a disorderly transition to net zero would look like over the coming decades if supply and demand are not transformed together.


The role of fossil fuel companies
It is difficult to see how the UK can reach its target of net zero emissions by 2050 without significant contributions from the companies that provide the overwhelming majority of our energy today.


But the onus is on the oil and gas companies to demonstrate that the industry is a trusted partner in accelerating the transition away from fossil fuels. They need to show that they are in the energy business and can survive and thrive without hydrocarbons.


There have been some promising signs with some of the biggest international oil companies, such as BP and Shell, taking initial steps towards achieving net zero targets, not just for themselves, but also for their customers. At International Energy Week in February, Bernard Looney, the Chief Executive of BP, provided a brief progress report on his company’s shift towards an integrated energy company. It is clearly making major investments in renewables and in electric vehicles.


It is a pity that his announcement had been undermined by BP’s prior admission that it was slowing down its phase-out of oil and gas production and weakening its targets for emissions cuts by 2030.


The world is currently far from being on a pathway to limiting the rise in global temperature to 1.5°C. On current projections we will overshoot this threshold, leading to even greater losses from growing and potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, higher investment costs for adaptation and resilience, and the need to develop geo-engineering on a massive scale to suck excess CO2 out of the atmosphere.


All of this will threaten lives and livelihoods across the world and will be the price we pay for having responded too slowly and too feebly to the warnings of scientists over the past few decades.


The International Energy Agency made clear in its May 2021 report that new fossil fuel developments are not compatible with the target of limiting global warming to 1.5°C. Fossil fuel companies have largely ignored this analysis but must do so no longer. The sector must now show how it will adapt to a net zero world, or else die as its high-carbon business model disintegrates and its social licence is revoked.


Fossil fuels companies can start by responding immediately and positively to the call by Dr Sultan Al Jaber, President of the COP28 United Nations climate change summit in Dubai later this year, who told the industry at CERAWeek that it must ‘up its game, do more and do it faster’, including reaching net zero methane emissions by 2030.


Now is the time for the fossil fuels industry to become part of the solution instead of part of the problem.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.