CSSN Scholars Gregory Trencher and Jusen Asuka find that major oil companies have not committed to curbing the production of fossil fuels, despite the pledges they’ve made toward decarbonizing their business models.
The energy products of oil and gas majors have contributed significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and planetary warming over the past century. Decarbonizing the global economy by mid-century to avoid dangerous climate change thus cannot occur without a profound transformation of their fossil fuel-based business models. Recently, several majors are increasingly discussing clean energy and climate change, pledging decarbonization strategies, and investing in alternative energies. Some even claim to be transforming into clean energy companies. Given a history of obstructive climate actions and “greenwashing”, there is a need to objectively evaluate current and historical decarbonization efforts and investment behavior. This study focuses on two American (Chevron, ExxonMobil) and two European majors (BP, Shell). Using data collected over 2009–2020, we comparatively examine the extent of decarbonization and clean energy transition activity from three perspectives: (1) keyword use in annual reports (discourse); (2) business strategies (pledges and actions); and (3) production, expenditures and earnings for fossil fuels along with investments in clean energy (investments). We found a strong increase in discourse related to “climate”, “low-carbon” and “transition”, especially by BP and Shell. Similarly, we observed increasing tendencies toward strategies related to decarbonization and clean energy. But these are dominated by pledges rather than concrete actions. Moreover, the financial analysis reveals a continuing business model dependence on fossil fuels along with insignificant and opaque spending on clean energy. We thus conclude that the transition to clean energy business models is not occurring, since the magnitude of investments and actions does not match discourse. Until actions and investment behavior are brought into alignment with discourse, accusations of greenwashing appear well-founded.