ExxonMobil's 2050 Net-Zero Pledge Is Laughable Greenwash

If you scope it out, you find it is dealing with producing the fossil fuels (scope 1 and 2) and not burning them (scope 3).

ExxonMobil refinery
ExxonMobil refinery pumps out Scope 1 emissions.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The headline on the ExxonMobil website claims "ExxonMobil aims to achieve net-zero emissions." Click through and it says in greater detail that "ExxonMobil aims to achieve net-zero emissions from its operated assets by 2050." It continues by noting, "This ambition applies to scope 1 and scope 2 greenhouse gas emissions."

Many headlines read like the one in Reuters: "Exxon pledges net-zero carbon emissions from operations by 2050." We might start with the point that net-zero targets disguise climate inaction and that when it comes to climate action, 2050 is the new never, but the ExxonMobil pledges are even more egregious because they only apply to "operated assets" and scope 1 and 2 emissions. That's just a fraction of the bigger picture.

Readers may recall the famous The Guardian headline, "Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions." It was covering the Carbon Majors Report from 2017, which listed the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions produced by 100 entities, but unlike The Guardian, the full report noted there were different "scopes." The report said:

Scope 1 emissions arise from the self-consumption of fuel, flaring, and venting or fugitive releases of methane.
Scope 3 emissions account for 90% of total company emissions and result from the downstream combustion of coal, oil, and gas for energy purposes. A small fraction of fossil fuel production is used in non-energy applications which sequester carbon. [like plastics]

Scope 2 emissions come from off-site, such as buying electricity to run an operation and are pretty minor. As noted in our post on the report, for oil companies, scope 1 is the entity extracting and refining the fossil fuel and shipping it to the pumps, and scope 3 is us buying the gas, putting it in our cars, and turning it into CO2.

Top 10 emitters
Top 10 emitters.

Carbon Majors Report

As can be seen in the chart from the Carbon Majors report, ExxonMobil had cumulative greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from 1988 to 2015 of 17,785 million metric tons of GHG of which 1,833 were scope 1, from their production and self-consumption. That's 10.3% of their total emissions. The remaining 17,785 million metric tons, 89.7% of the total, come out of the tailpipes of our SUVs and pickups and the chimneys of our furnaces after we buy what they are selling.

ExxonMobil gives an explanation of how this might be done at one of their sites:

"An example of an asset roadmap is ExxonMobil’s Permian Basin operations, where the company announced groundbreaking plans to reach net-zero Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030. With the support of proven technology and sound policies, the Company plans to electrify operations with low-carbon power, which may include wind, solar, natural gas with carbon capture and storage, or other technologies. The Company also plans to expand and accelerate its methane mitigation and industry-leading detection technology, eliminate routine flaring, upgrade equipment, and employ emission offsets, which may include nature-based solutions. Achieving net-zero emissions in the Permian Basin will be a major contributor to the Company’s efforts to support a lower-emission future, as the Permian accounts for more than 40% of ExxonMobil’s net U.S. oil and natural gas production."

Nice work, but they are still pumping out all that gas and oil, which is still going to produce CO2 when it is burned, and we are still only getting a 10% reduction in overall emissions.

flying less and driving less

Twitter/Ben Sbarbaro

I have noted before that not understanding the difference between scope 1 and scope 3 leads to wild misunderstandings, like not getting the connection between the stuff made by those companies and the stuff you put in your car or plane. ExxonMobil is relying on this confusion and ignorance with its almost meaningless net-zero by 2050 pledge, as can be seen by much of the media coverage. With no mention or even comment about the scale of Scope 3 emissions, it is all laughable greenwash.

The reality is that it is likely impossible to net-zero out of its scope 3 emissions. There are not enough trees that could be planted or carbon capture and storage devices that could be built to suck up all that CO2. The only way to deal with the problem is for us to stop buying what they are selling. The only way for ExxonMobil to eliminate its scope 3 emissions is to go out of business. We should do everything we can to help them on their way.

View Article Sources
  1. Dr. Paul, Griffin. "The Carbon Majors Database." Climate Account Institute, 2017.

  2. "Latest Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks Shows Long-Term Reductions, with Annual Variation." Environmental Protection Agency, 2020.